Subido por Majer László

317160144-Order-in-Chaos

Anuncio
Order in Chaos
FOREIGN MILITARY STUDIES
History is replete with examples of notable military campaigns and exceptional military
leaders and theorists. Military professionals and students of the art and science of war
cannot afford to ignore these sources of knowledge or limit their studies to the history of
the U.S. armed forces. This series features original works, translations, and reprints of
classics outside the American canon that promote a deeper understanding of international
military theory and practice.
SERIES EDITOR: Roger Cirillo
An AUSA Book
ORDER
IN
CHAOS
The Memoirs of
General of Panzer Troops
Hermann Balck
HERMANN BALCK
Edited and Translated by Major General David T. Zabecki, USA (Ret.),
and Lieutenant Colonel Dieter J. Biedekarken, USA (Ret.)
Foreword by Carlo D’Este
Due to variations in the technical specifications of different electronic reading devices,
some elements of this ebook may not appear as they do in the print edition. Readers are
encouraged to experiment with user settings for optimum results.
Copyright © 2015 by The University Press of Kentucky
Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth,
serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson
Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State
University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky,
University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University.
All rights reserved.
Editorial and Sales Offices: The University Press of Kentucky
663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508–4008
www.kentuckypress.com
The German edition of this book was published as General der Panzertruppe a.D. Hermann Balck, Ordnung im Chaos:
Erinnerungen 1893–1948, 2nd ed. (Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1981).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Balck, Hermann, 1893-1982.
[Ordnung im Chaos. English]
The memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck / Hermann Balck ; edited by Major General David T.
Zabecki, USA (Ret.), and Lieutenant Colonel Dieter J. Biederkarken, USA (Ret.) ; foreword by Carlo D’Este.
pages cm. — (Foreign military studies)
“An AUSA Book.”
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8131-6126-6 (hardcover : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-8131-6127-3 (pdf) — ISBN 978-0-8131-6128-0
(epub)
1. Balck, Hermann, 1893-1982. 2. Generals—Germany—Biography. 3. Germany. Heer—Biography. 4. World War,
1914-1918—Personal narratives, German. 5. World War, 1939-1945—Tank warfare. 6. World War, 1939-1945—
Personal narratives, German. I. Zabecki, David T. II. Biederkarken, Dieter J. III. Title.
U55.B228A3613 2015
355.009—dc23
[B]
2015011481
This book is printed on acid-free paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in
Paper for Printed Library Materials.
Manufactured in the United States of America.
Member of the Association of
American University Presses
Contents
List of Maps
Foreword by Carlo D’Este
Preface
Introduction
1. 1914
2. 1915
3. 1916
4. 1917
5. 1918
6. Retrospective on World War I
7. 1919
8. 1920
9. 1921
10. In the Third Reich
11. World War II
12. Greece
13. Russia
14. 1942
15. 1943
16. The Gross-Deutschland Division
17. Commander in Chief, Army Group G
18. North of the Danube
19. Looking Back
Appendixes
Notes
Index
Photographs follow page 276
Maps
Map 1. The French Campaign, May–June 1940
Map 2. The Balkan Campaign, April–June 1941
Map 3. Battle of Mount Olympus, 6–30 April 1941
Map 4. The German Attack into Southern Russia, Summer 1942
Map 5. The Stalingrad Campaign, December 1942–January 1943
Map 6. Battle for State Farm 79, 7–8 December 1942
Map 7. Battles on the Chir River, 8–19 December 1942
Map 8. 11th Panzer Division Counterattack, 19 December 1942
Map 9. The Kiev Salient, November–December 1943
Map 10. XLVIII Panzer Corps Operations around Brusilov, 15–24 November 1943
Map 11. XLVIII Panzer Corps Attack on Radomysl, 6–15 December 1943
Map 12. XLVIII Panzer Corps Battle of the Meleni Pocket, 12–23 December 1943
Map 13. Galicia, 13 July 1944
Map 14. Destruction of the 8th Panzer Division, 14 July 1944
Map 15. Army Group G Situation, 15 September 1944
Map 16. U.S. XII Corps Attack, 8–16 November 1944
Map 17. Army Group G Situation, November 1944
Map 18. Fall of Strasbourg, November 1944
Map 19. The First Operation to Relieve Budapest, 1–6 January 1944
Map 20. The Second Operation to Relieve Budapest, 18–27 January 1944
Foreword
Many of the German generals of World War II were superb battlefield commanders who
not only understood mobile warfare, but also were masterful strategists and tacticians.
Erwin Rommel, Erich von Manstein, Albert Kesselring, Hans Guderian, and Hasso von
Manteuffel are among the well-known successful German generals that have garnered
considerable attention for their exploits. Yet, one name is conspicuously missing from the
list of successful generals: General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck.
One of the means by which we learn is through a study of history and the lessons it
teaches us. There have been few better ways to learn about World War II than to scrutinize
the German generals who commanded the armies, corps, and other military units that
fought so well against the Allies during the most deadly war in the history of mankind.
Shortly after the end of the war, the U.S. Army European Command Historical
Division conducted a series of interviews and interrogations of those German generals
who had been captured. The objective was to acquire a detailed knowledge of German
military operations for the U.S. Army official history. It was also to gain a better
understanding not only of an enemy that had fought tenaciously and well during the
campaigns in the Mediterranean, the eastern front, and Northwest Europe, but of war. The
transcripts of those interviews that number in the hundreds have been preserved and have
proven invaluable to historians like myself who have studied and written about World War
II.
There is much to learn from reading Balck’s memoir. He was, as one of his translators,
David Zabecki, once noted, “The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of.”
Although Germany produced a number of truly outstanding Panzer commanders during
World War II, few were more successful or more accomplished than Hermann Balck.
Major General F. W. von Mellenthin, the well-known postwar author of Panzer Battles,
served with and knew Balck well, and has said of him, “If Manstein was Germany’s
greatest strategist during World War II, I think Balck has strong claims to be regarded as
our finest field commander.”
Freeman Dyson, the famed physicist and mathematician, has written a book called
Weapons and Hope that contains an in-depth assessment of Balck that goes even further.
Dyson calls him, “Perhaps the most brilliant field commander on either side in World War
II.”
A classic example of Balck’s skill as a troop leader and tactician occurred during one
tank battle in Russia in 1942 while in command of the 11th Panzer Division. With no prior
notice, Balck broke off an attack, moved his division twenty kilometers in a matter of
hours in the dead of night, and counterattacked a Soviet breakthrough with such surprise
that it not only foiled the attack but also destroyed seventy-five Russian tanks without the
loss of a single Panzer.
Balck and General George S. Patton had much in common. Both were dynamic
commanders who believed that offensive action was always preferable to defense. “It is
quite remarkable,” Balck once noted, “that most people believe that attack costs more
casualties. Do not even think about it; attack is the less costly operation… . Nothing incurs
higher casualties than an unsuccessful defense. Therefore, attack wherever it is possible.”
The two leaders also believed strongly in the power and influence of personal
leadership. Like Patton, Balck was a very “hands-on” commander who believed in being
up front with his troops, both to control the battle and to uplift their morale.
Balck is rarely mentioned in the U.S. Army official histories and has been
mischaracterized in the volume on the Lorraine campaign, while briefly in command of
Army Group G, as “a strutting martinet.” However, Freeman Dyson has a vastly different
view of Balck and characterizes him as a soldier who never took himself particularly
seriously. “He went on winning battles, just as Picasso went on painting pictures, without
pretensions or pious talk. He won battles because his skill came to him naturally. He never
said that battle-winning was a particularly noble or virtuous activity; it was simply his
trade.”
Few could claim greater success at their trade than Balck.
Moreover, because Balck was one of the few captured German generals who refused to
participate in the U.S. Army debriefing program, the translation of his memoir into
English has become an important and useful window through which we can gain a better
understanding of German military leadership and some of its most important military
operations during World War II.
Carlo D’Este
Author of Patton: A Genius for War
Preface
General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck was the nineteenth of only twenty-seven
soldiers awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and
Diamonds, Germany’s highest decoration of World War II. He was wounded a total of
seven times in both world wars. U.S. Army general William E. DePuy once referred to
Balck as “the best division commander in the German Army.”1 In his 1984 book, Weapons
and Hope, physicist and philosopher Freeman Dyson wrote, “Perhaps the most brilliant
field commander on either side in World War II was Hermann Balck.”2 And in his highly
regarded book, Panzer Battles, German major general Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin
wrote, “If [Field Marshal Erich von] Manstein was Germany’s greatest strategist during
World War II, I think Balck has strong claims to be regarded as our finest field
commander.”3 Yet, Hermann Balck remains today a name known to only the most serious
students of the military history of World War II.
Several factors explain why a field commander with “a record of battlefield
performance unsurpassed anywhere in the history of modern warfare”4 remains so
obscure. Balck spent most of World War II on the eastern front, fighting the Russians. He
spent only seven months, spread over four different periods, fighting against the western
Allies. As the commander of an infantry regiment he led one of the key attacks that
resulted in the decisive German breakthrough against France at Sedan on the Meuse River
in 1940. Commanding a Panzer regiment in April 1941 he fought against the British and
New Zealanders in Greece. As an acting Panzer corps commander in Italy he fought
against the Americans during the initial stages of the Salerno landings in September 1943.
And for a three-month period at the end of 1944 he commanded Army Group G in the
Lorraine campaign. Most of what western readers learned about Balck in the years
immediately following the war was based on the assessment of Balck by American official
military historians that was neither fair nor accurate.
In the Lorraine Campaign volume of the U.S. Army in World War II series (the “Green
Books”), historian Hugh M. Cole painted a bleak picture of the Army Group G
commander with such statements as:
“Politically, Balck long held the reputation of being an ardent Nazi.”
“From his earliest days as a junior commander he had built up a reputation for arrogant
and ruthless dealings with his subordinates.”
“Balck already had been ticketed as an officer prone to take too favorable a view of things
when the situation failed to warrant optimism.”
“He was, in short, the type of commander certain to win Hitler’s confidence.”5
Balck, however, was never a member of the Nazi Party, and he was not even close to
being a Nazi sympathizer or an ardent Hitler worshiper. On 19 September 1949 the
judgment of a West German Spruchkammer (denazification court) cleared Balck
unequivocally: “These proceedings have found no causal connection between this man
and National Socialism.”6 One of the key pieces of evidence offered in Balck’s defense
was a sworn affidavit written in November 1947 by former Colonel General Heinz
Guderian. Cole’s other charges against Balck are likewise unfounded. Mellenthin knew
Balck well. He served as Balck’s chief of staff for more than two years, and together they
formed one of the all-time great commander-chief of staff teams. Writing in Panzer
Battles in 1956, Mellenthin commented on Cole’s distorted characterization of Balck, and
the fact that other historians had picked it up and repeated it. Trying to set the record
straight, Mellenthin wrote: “I regret that in that remarkable work, The Struggle for Europe
(page 538), Chester Wilmont has followed the estimate of Balck’s qualities given in the
American official history, The Lorraine Campaign (page 230), where Balck is portrayed
as a swashbuckling martinet. Apart from the comments on Balck I have no quarrel with
the American history, which gives a very solid and on the whole impartial study of these
operations.”7
For many years after the war Balck did little to overcome his historical obscurity or
even to defend his reputation. While still prisoners of war during the late 1940s, many of
the Wehrmacht’s surviving senior officers cooperated willingly in the U.S. Army
Historical Division’s Foreign Military Studies program, writing monographs and
participating in interviews. Even after they were released, many continued cooperating
with the program well into the early 1960s. Balck was not among them. He simply refused
to talk.8 Thus, German officers already relatively well known to the western Allies,
including Colonel General Franz Halder, Colonel General Johannes Blaskowitz, General
of Panzer Troops Hasso von Manteuffel, General of Infantry Günther Blumentritt, and
even Waffen-SS generals like Wilhelm Bittrich participated in the program, and in so
doing were able to tell their own stories. Mellenthin himself wrote or contributed to five
monographs in the series. Balck maintained his silence. He supported his family after the
war by working in a warehouse as a laborer.
Near the end of his life Balck had a change of heart and started to open up to his former
enemies. Mellenthin most likely had something to do with that. After the war Balck and
Mellenthin remained close, and Balck even wound up working for his former chief of staff
as a representative for the airline Mellenthin started in South Africa.9
The U.S. Army also rediscovered Balck in the mid-1970s, during the period of the
American renaissance in classical military thought that followed the defeat in Vietnam. As
the American strategic focus shifted back to Europe at the height of the Cold War, the U.S.
Army’s major challenge was to develop a tactical and operational doctrine for fighting
outnumbered and winning against the overwhelming numerically superior tank forces of
the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Balck, of course, was one of the undisputed
masters of just that. In 1979 Battelle Columbus Laboratories interviewed Balck several
times under a U.S. Army contract.10 And in May 1980 Balck and Mellenthin together
participated in a colloquium on tactical warfare at the U.S. Army War College, under the
auspices of the Director of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense. The senior
American officers participating included retired General William E. DePuy, the former
commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and principal author of the
1976 edition of FM 100-5 Operations; Lieutenant General Glenn K. Otis, U.S. Army,
deputy chief of staff for Operations and Plans; and Lieutenant General Paul Goreman, J-5
(Plans and Policy), Joint Chiefs of Staff.11
German tactical doctrine, especially as it had been practiced by Balck against the
Russians, had a clear influence on the development of the new American doctrine, called
AirLand Battle.12 From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s the study of Balck’s
December 1942 battle on the Chir River as commander of the 11th Panzer Division was a
standard element in the formal course of instruction at the U.S. Army Command and
General Staff College. It was held up as one of the best historical examples of the tactical
principles embodied in AirLand Battle.
Fortunately, Balck maintained a detailed journal throughout his military career, from
his earliest days as an officer candidate in 1913 to his final surrender to U.S. Army forces
in May 1945. During the years following World War II he worked episodically to pull his
journal entries together into a coherent narrative. The result was a book entitled Ordnung
in Chaos, published in Germany in 1981, a year before his death at the age of eighty-four.
Despite the renewed interest in Balck at the time, his memoirs have not been translated
into English until now.
Perhaps the single overriding moral question about the German Army in World War II
is how so many of its soldiers and officers could have fought so well for such a bad cause?
Historians and philosophers have been pondering that question since even before the war
ended. There may never be a conclusive answer, and Balck’s memoirs certainly do not
answer it. They do, however, offer important insights into the background, the
experiences, the motivations, and the values of one of the most significant of those
officers.
Freeman Dyson devotes considerable space to examining that question in Weapons and
Hope. Dyson identifies two broad categories of Wehrmacht officers, distinguished by their
basic attitudes to their professional duties. The one attitude he calls soldiering, the other
Soldatentum13—the distinction between soldiering as a trade and soldiering as a cult.
Dyson further develops his analysis using Balck as an example of the former. For the
latter, Dyson’s model is Colonel General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Operations Staff of
the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht—OKW, the Armed Forces High Command. Jodl, who
was tried and convicted at Nuremberg and then executed, was the epitome of the military
Beamter (bureaucrat). Comparing Balck to Jodl, Dyson wrote, “He was, unlike Jodl, a real
Prussian. He fought as Jodl was not permitted to fight, in the front lines with his
soldiers.”14
Developing the contrast between Jodl and Balck, Dyson wrote that they were examples
of two very different styles of military professionalism; the bureaucratic and the human,
the heavy and the light, the humorless and humorous:
Jodl doggedly sat at his desk, translating Hitler’s dreams of conquest into daily
balance sheets of men and equipment. Balck gaily jumped out of one tight squeeze
into another, taking good care of his soldiers and never losing his sense of humor.15
For Jodl, Hitler was Germany’s fate, a superhuman force transcending right and
wrong. Balck saw Hitler as he was, a powerful but not very competent politician.
When Jodl disagreed with Hitler’s plan to extend the German advance south of the
Caucasus Mountains by dropping parachutists, the disagreement was for Jodl a soul-
shattering experience. When Balck appealed directly to Hitler to straighten out the
confusion in the supply of tanks and trucks, Hitler’s failure to deal with the situation
came as no surprise to Balck.16
Even after it had become clear to everyone that Germany had no hope of winning the
war, Jodl continued to the bitter end because he had accepted Hitler’s will as his own
personal highest law. Balck went on fighting because it was his job and it never occurred
to him to do otherwise. As Dyson wrote:
I chose my two examples of military professionalism from Germany because the
German side of World War II displays the moral dilemmas of military
professionalism with particular clarity. Both Jodl and Balck were good men working
for a bad cause. Both of them used their professional skills to conquer and ravage
half of Europe. Both of them continued to exercise their skills through the long
years of retreat when the only result of their efforts was to prolong Europe’s agony.
Both of them appeared to be indifferent to the sufferings of the villagers whose
homes their tanks were smashing and burning. And yet, the judgment of Nuremberg
made a distinction between them. Whether or not the Nuremberg tribunal was
properly constituted according to international law, its decisions expressed the
consensus of mankind at that moment in history. Jodl was hanged and Balck was set
free; and the majority of interested bystanders agreed that justice had been done.17
Dyson considers Balck a generally sympathetic character because he did not take
himself too seriously. “He went on winning battles, just as Picasso went on painting
pictures, without pretensions or pious talk.” Balck had a natural and finely developed skill
for winning battles, but he never came to believe that that battle-winning was an especially
righteous or noble undertaking. It was his trade, and he was far better than most at it. Jodl,
however, was unsympathetic because he set soldiering above humanity. He turned his
soldier’s oath, which he equated with blind loyalty to Hitler, into a holy sacrament. Jodl’s
sense of Soldatentum was far more important to him than saving what was left of
Germany. Thus, Jodl in the end became infected with Hitler’s insanity, and his ideal of
Soldatentum lost all connection with reason, reality, and common sense.18
Dyson did write one thing about Balck that requires some additional comment: “He
was accused of no war crimes.”19 In the strictest sense that is not an entirely accurate
statement. During the years immediately following World War II, Balck was charged and
tried in two separate incidents. The first was technically not a war crime. The second was,
although the charge was trumped-up.
On 28 November 1944, when Balck commanded Army Group G defending the sector
from Belfort to Metz, a divisional artillery commander named Lieutenant Colonel Johann
Schottke was found staggeringly drunk in his bunker in the middle of a battle. Schottke
did not even know where his batteries were positioned. Balck’s units were under extreme
pressure from Allied attacks along the entire length of his line. The failure of the artillery
support in that one divisional sector only added to the Army Group G casualties. After
checking the facts of the case twice, Balck ordered Schottke’s summary execution.
Following the war the Schottke incident was investigated by the German denazification
court. As the court ruled, “In the final analysis, however, this is not the matter for the
Spruchkammer to pass judgment on. This court’s only purpose is to determine whether or
not this action can be judged as a Nazi terror act in the political sense. This clearly is not
the case.”20 Noting that the armies of other nations would have acted with similar severity
in such a situation, the court concluded; “It is, therefore, impossible to reach the
conclusion the person concerned [Balck] acted in accordance with National Socialist
policies.”21
In 1948 Balck was tried by a civilian court in Stuttgart. He argued that his action had
been taken in the heat of a crisis situation, and that under the circumstances he had acted
completely within the framework of the German military code of justice. The court
disagreed, ruling Schottke’s execution unlawful. Balck was sentenced to three years in
prison, and served eighteen months. Other German commanders besides Balck were tried
by postwar German courts for similar incidents, including the widely respected
Manteuffel.
While he was still in confinement from the Schottke trial, the French government
charged Balck with a war crime for the destruction of the town of Gérardmer in the Vosges
Mountains of Alsace. As Free French and American forces pushed eastward through the
Vosges in mid-November 1944, the Germans were forced to pull back their front, leaving
Gérardmer between the German line and the advancing Allies. As Balck later wrote,
leaving the civilian population in the town “would have exposed them to high casualties
and certain annihilation from our artillery fire.” Rather than evacuating the local
population to the east toward Germany, Balck decided to send them west toward the
Allies, providing the evacuees with food and medical supplies. Balck then established a
forty-eight-hour no-fire zone for his own artillery. Abandoned, Gérardmer was largely
destroyed during the subsequent fighting.
In 1950 all the German leaders involved at Gérardmer were tried before a French
military tribunal in Paris. The American occupation authorities refused to extradite Balck
for trial, and he was tried in absentia. All those who were tried in person were acquitted.
Balck, however, was convicted for the destruction of the town and sentenced to twenty
years imprisonment—even though his actions clearly had spared the local population. As
Balck later wrote, “My absence made it easier for the French to acquit those present,
especially since during the pretrial depositions I had clearly admitted to the measures we
had taken.” Even after he was convicted, however, both American and German authorities
refused to extradite him to France, and the sentence was never carried out.
Hermann Balck invites comparison with another of Germany’s World War II generals.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is undoubtedly the most famous and most celebrated
German general of the twentieth century. But does his actual record of battlefield
performance really justify his exalted reputation? Some military historians think it does
not.
Balck and Rommel had very different backgrounds. Balck came from an old-line
military family. His father, Lieutenant General William Balck,22 commanded a division
during World War I, and prior to the war he was one of Germany’s best known tactical
theorists. The elder Balck was a staunch critic of Chief of the General Staff Alfred von
Schlieffen for his one-sided emphasis on envelopment. William Balck wrote a series of
books on tactics, one of which was translated into English and used as a textbook in
American military schools following World War I.23 Hermann Balck grew up learning the
military art at his father’s elbow.
Born two years earlier than Balck, Rommel came from a family that had no special
military tradition. His father was a school headmaster, although he did serve briefly as a
lieutenant of artillery. It is exactly this lack of a military family background that makes
Rommel’s own career so impressive, especially considering that most of the key German
generals of the two world wars were the sons of professional military officers.
As described here in Balck’s memoirs and in Rommel’s book Infanterie greift an,24
their experiences as junior officers during World War I were amazingly similar. Both were
among the earliest recipients of the Iron Cross 2nd Class and 1st Class. Rommel was
wounded in action three times, Balck six. Both commanded infantry companies as junior
lieutenants, and near the end of the war Rommel commanded an ad hoc battalion as a
captain. For much of the second half of the war Rommel’s Württemberg Mountain
Battalion and Balck’s 10th Jäger Battalion were part of the divisional-sized Alpenkorps.
Rommel and Balck both fought at the battles of Mount Gragonza in October 1917 and
Mount Tomba that November. In December 1917 Rommel was awarded the Pour le
Mérite, Prussia’s highest combat decoration. Balck was recommended for the Pour le
Mérite in October 1918, but the war ended before the paperwork could be processed.
When Rommel published his book in 1937, it impressed Hitler, whose patronage
contributed much to Rommel’s meteoric rise during World War II. Rommel’s record of
battlefield performance during World War II rests on six weeks in May and June 1940
during the invasion of France as a Panzer division commander; his twenty-five months as
a corps, army, and army group commander in North Africa from February 1941 to March
1943; and his six weeks as the commander of Army Group B in June and July 1944 during
the Allied Normandy invasion. While he was in North Africa, Rommel was the primary
German commander the Allies fought against during that period. In the process he
acquired the nickname of the Desert Fox, and his name became a household word in
Britain and America. The Battle of Gazala and the capture of Tobruk in May and June
1942 were the peak of Rommel’s career. Not counting Rommel’s four months in 1943
commanding an army group in Northern Italy, during which no combat operations were
conducted, he commanded in combat for a total of twenty-eight months. He commanded
one division, one corps, one army, and two army groups, none of which fought the
Russians.
Balck also fought in France, as a regimental commander, and his attack across the
Meuse at Sedan was the spearhead of Guderian’s XIX Corps advance. Although the Nazi
press controlled by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels trumpeted the crossing of the
Meuse by Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division at Dinant, it was Guderian’s crossing at Sedan
farther to the south that was the decisive penetration of the campaign. Balck, during World
War II, commanded in combat for a total of thirty-six months, including two regiments,
two divisions, two corps, two armies, and two army groups. Twenty-nine of those thirtysix months were against the Russians, and much of that in harsh northern winter
conditions. And although Rommel was always outnumbered in North Africa, it was Balck
who was the master at overcoming impossible odds. On the Chir River in December 1942
Balck with a single Panzer division virtually destroyed the Soviet Fifth Tank Army,
despite superior Soviet combat ratios of 11 to 1 in infantry, 7 to 1 in tanks, and 20 to 1 in
guns.25 And at Budapest in early 1945, Balck attacked forty-five Russian divisions with
seven German divisions. To the end of his life he maintained that he could have relieved
Budapest if he had had two more Panzer divisions.26
Another significant difference between Rommel and Balck in their later careers was
their attitudes toward General Staff officers. Rommel was never recruited to attend the
Kriegsakademie or to join the General Staff, a fact that he greatly resented.27 Balck, on the
other hand, served in several General Staff assignments in the early 1930s, which qualified
him for assignment to the General Staff Corps. Despite the fact that his father had been a
General Staff officer, Balck on two occasions declined invitations for reassignment, saying
that he preferred to remain a line officer.28
Although Balck had a healthy skepticism about what he considered the tendency for
inbreeding within the General Staff Corps, Rommel largely disliked and distrusted
General Staff officers. Mellenthin worked for both Balck and Rommel as a General Staff
officer. When Berlin sent Rommel a small team of General Staff officers in June 1941, he
initially “snubbed von Mellenthin and the other General Staff officers, ignoring their
presence for a long time, saying: ‘I don’t need a staff.’ ”29 The irony is that during his time
in North Africa Rommel was served by one of the most brilliant teams of General Staff
officers ever assembled under a single commander, including Mellenthin, Siegfried
Westphal, and Fritz Bayerlein. Whenever Rommel ran into trouble in North Africa, it was
usually after ignoring the advice of his staff.
Balck, on the other hand, valued competent and reliable General Staff officers. He
forged tight and effective command teams with his two primary chiefs of staff of the war,
Mellenthin and Major General Heinrich Gaedcke, who later served as a lieutenant general
in the Bundeswehr. As Mellenthin later wrote of Balck, he never interfered in the details
of staff work, giving his chief of staff full authority as well as full responsibility.30
Nonetheless, Balck did not trust General Staff officers blindly just because they were
members of the vaunted General Staff Corps. They had to prove themselves to him first,
because he believed that General Staff officers had too much of a tendency to become
inwardly focused and lose touch with the realities of war at the sharp end of the stick. That
was one of the few things that Balck and Mellenthin did not agree upon fully. “Once he
expressed his outlook on the subject by saying that on the staff one easily became
‘secondhand,’ as he called it. A man became smothered in routine office work. I cannot
share my highly respected commander-in-chief’s opinion in this regard, although we
agreed in most other matters.”31
Balck’s memoirs are filled with his experiences with and comments on many of the
major German figures of World War II. Balck held Manstein in the highest esteem, but he
thought Field Marshal Walther Model was an erratic and meddling leader—and told him
so. Like almost all of the Wehrmacht’s senior officers, Balck had little use for most of the
general officers of the Waffen-SS. The few exceptions included Josef “Sepp” Dietrich and
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. Balck’s positive comments on these two can be a bit
jarring, considering how history has come to judge them. On the other hand, Field Marshal
Gerd von Rundstedt initially opposed Balck’s assignment as Army Group G commander
because Balck had very little experience fighting Americans.
Guderian, the father of Germany’s Panzer forces, was Balck’s most important mentor
throughout his career. Both Balck and Guderian started their military careers as officer
candidates in the elite 10th Jäger Battalion. When Guderian joined the unit in 1907, his
father, Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Guderian, was the battalion commander. During
World War I, when Guderian got in hot water for accusing his divisional commander of
incompetence in an official after-action report, it was Lieutenant General William Balck
who arranged for Guderian’s transfer to another assignment, probably saving his career in
the process.32
Balck’s and Guderian’s paths crossed many times during the interwar years, but their
professional relationship probably was cemented during the May 1940 invasion of France,
when Guderian was able to observe firsthand Balck’s dynamic lead-from-the-front style of
command, as well as his unusually wry sense of humor. As Guderian recounted his own
crossing of the Meuse on 13 May 1940, he was midstream in an assault boat when “On the
far bank I found the efficient and brave commander of the 1st Rifle Regiment, Lieutenant
Colonel Balck, together with his staff. He greeted me joyfully with the cry, ‘Joy riding in
canoes on the Meuse is forbidden.’ I had in fact used those words myself in one of the
exercises that we had in preparation for this operation, since the attitude of some of the
younger officers had struck me as rather too light-hearted. I now realized that they had
judged the situation correctly.”33
After the France campaign Balck’s career followed Guderian’s very closely. Although
Balck had no experience in Panzer units up to that point, he was given command of a
Panzer regiment for the Balkans and Greece campaign, followed by staff assignments in
Berlin working with motorized and armored units, and finally command of a Panzer
division. Balck’s performance as commander of the 11th Panzer Division in Russia
established him solidly as one of Germany’s leading armored commanders.
In late December 1944, Balck was relieved of command of Army Group G after
running afoul of one of SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s political intrigues. Guderian, who at
the time was the chief of staff of the German Army, made sure that Balck did not remain
idle for long. Almost the same day he was relieved, Balck was reassigned as commander
of the reconstituted Sixth Army, fighting on the eastern front.
Balck’s relations with Hitler, his views on Germany’s responsibility for World War II,
and his general reluctance to address the Third Reich’s barbaric racial policies and the
Holocaust are among the most difficult parts of his memoirs. The modern reader will
encounter much to question here. One always must keep in mind, however, that we are
reading the thoughts and the memories of a man who was close to many of the central
events of the Third Reich. Balck’s memoirs, then, are both an explanation of how he saw
things at the time, and how he came to understand them in the succeeding years. Much of
his discussion of these key topics is inherently defensive. The fact that he twice brings up
the “right or wrong, my country” defense—which he cites both times in English—is a
strong indicator that he was still struggling with these issues as he was preparing his
memoirs for publication.
Balck was never blinded by Hitler, as Jodl and many others were. But Balck also does
not join the postwar chorus of German generals who blamed every failure on Hitler. In
several cases, Balck gives Hitler credit for making correct decisions in opposition to the
generals. In many other cases, however, he lays Germany’s failures directly at Hitler’s
feet. Balck states very clearly that the Hitler of legend, the screaming and out of control
Teppichbeisser—the carpet-chewing dog—was not the Hitler he dealt with many times.
But in the end Balck does conclude: “Despite all my conscious efforts to evaluate Hitler
with complete objectivity, I cannot escape the final verdict—he was our downfall. Beware
of strong men who do not know the limits of their power.”
Even as he was finishing his memoirs for publication Balck still did not quite know
how to address the issue of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and the July 1944 plot to
assassinate Hitler. Balck maintains that he knew nothing about the plot, and he admits to
being glad that he was not drawn into it. But he knew Stauffenberg well, and he had great
respect for him. Without specifically endorsing Stauffenberg’s actions, he expresses an
understanding for them, and in the end he refuses to condemn his old friend. “My opinion
of some of the others involved in the conspiracy is not so positive, but I will always hold
Stauffenberg in honorable remembrance.”
Throughout the latter part of his memoirs Balck protests strongly that Germany was not
the sole aggressor in World War II. As he continued to see it, even some thirty-five years
after the end of the war, Germany was maneuvered into the conflict, particularly by
Churchill and Roosevelt, who manipulated Poland and France. Balck ignores the evidence
of the 1937 Hossbach Memorandum and the fact that it was Germany that attacked
Poland, Norway, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Greece, and finally the Soviet Union.
On 11 December 1941 it was Hitler who unilaterally declared war on the United States,
even though Germany did not even have advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor. Balck’s arguments and thoughts along these lines betray the complete lack
of geopolitical understanding that was so characteristic of the German officer corps
between 1871 and 1945.
At several points in his narrative Balck attempts to mount the same sort of tu quoque
(you also) defense that was attempted so unsuccessfully at the Nuremberg Trials. At
several points he accuses both the British and the Americans of treating prisoners of war
brutally, even though the historical record is quite clear that the vast majority of German
POWs in American and British hands testified otherwise. Balck even raises the old canard
that Eisenhower at the end of the war issued specific orders to mistreat or even kill
German prisoners. If he really believed that, Balck still did not regret the extreme lengths
he went to in May 1945 to evade the Soviets and surrender his forces to the Americans.
In all his discussion of Hitler’s pros and cons, Balck cannot seem to bring himself to
face the reality of Hitler’s brutal racial and occupation policies, the inherent corruption of
almost all of the social and political institutions of the Third Reich, and the utter barbarism
of the Holocaust. Like many of the Wehrmacht’s senior commanders, Balck claims to
have known little about the scope of the Holocaust for most of the war—even though
anyone who lived in Germany after 1933 could not help but know about the Third Reich’s
virulent anti-Semitic policies. Only twice, once in the main text and once in a letter
included in the appendices, is there any reference to the fate of the Jews or to Auschwitz.
Balck staunchly defends the “Myth of the Clean Wehrmacht” that was championed so
strongly and successfully by Manstein, Halder, Westphal, and others at the Nuremberg
Trials. That myth held up for more than forty years after the war. Within the past twentyfive years, however, historical scholarship has exposed a high level of Wehrmacht
complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust.34
In the final analysis, Balck is no different than the countless other soldiers and
commanders of the past who found themselves on the wrong side of history at the
conclusion of a war. Undoubtedly, most of the veterans of the Confederate Army in the
American Civil War, including such revered figures as Robert E. Lee, Thomas
“Stonewall” Jackson, and James Longstreet went to their graves believing they had fought
an honorable war for a noble cause, regardless of the obvious flaws of the political and
social system they defended.
Despite his inability to come to grips with these issues, the Hermann Balck that
emerges from the pages of these memoirs is the essentially ironic figure of Dyson’s good
man who served a bad cause so well. Although Freeman Dyson is one of the leading
intellectuals of the post–World War II world, he is no stranger to the realities of modern
warfare. Between 1943 and 1945 he served in the Operational Research Section of the
Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, developing analytical methods for the selection of
bombing targets in Germany. As Dyson wrote of Balck: “The constant theme of his
military career was learning to do more with less.” And: “He was always inventing new
tricks to confound the enemy in front of him and the bureaucrats behind him.”35
Balck was a good man and an honest man, in addition to being a talented soldier and a
brilliant combat commander. He also was a highly cultured man. His memoirs are full of
references to history, architecture, and literary quotes ranging from Homer to Goethe. Yet,
Balck wore his culture lightly, and it comes through in his memoirs with no sense of
pretentiousness. Dyson wrote that if he had to choose an epigraph for a biography of
Balck, he would take it from the old Anglo-Saxon poem commemorating the Battle of
Maldon:
Thought shall be harder, heart the keener,
Courage the greater, as our strength lessens.36
David T. Zabecki
Freiburg, Germany
Dieter Biedekarken
Imperial Beach, California
Introduction
Fate propelled me into the world during an era of historical development in Germany that
other peoples had long since passed through. Peoples pass through many levels in their
development. The Germans, the English, the French did not exist in the beginning. Single
tribes and personalities often united based on geographical conditions. Fighting erupted at
the tip of the growth, which eventually led to fighting of all against all else. This is the
state of particularism that forcefully forms into a unity of violence and cruelty. The
developmental stages with all their unpleasant side effects are the same everywhere. In
France it was the era of Richelieu and Louis XIV up to Napoleon; in England it was the
period under Cromwell. After countless sacrifices unity is achieved and the development
into a nation of world historic greatness can take its course.
Germany arrived too late. The right era and the right personalities may have been
Wallenstein and Prince Eugene of Savoy. But the Habsburgs were not capable enough.
Consequently, the development was postponed to our period, and with the same
developmental phases. This is not meant to be an apology for what occurred during the
Third Reich. An advanced culture and civilization should have and could have found other
approaches. As a result, the end state for us was not, like in England and France, the
development into a world power, but rather total destruction and collapse.
The following memoirs are based on journal entries that I kept from the first to the last
days of both world wars. They consist of thoughts that I formed at the time. The reader
will easily recognize critical thoughts that were added later. Often the journal entries are
used verbatim.
The Balcks
The Balcks are a very old family. We come from the oldest of Finnish families. Around
1120 we migrated from Sweden to Finland. In 1308 Gregor Balck was the fourth Bishop
of Aebo. Our ancestors settled on the estates of Balkis and Balkilax. Since that time we
can trace our family completely. Our coat of arms is a blue bend on a golden field. The
crest of an armor-clad arm rising from a cloud, holding an oak branch with a golden star,
is a later Swedish addition. The family motto “Frangi non flecti” also comes from that
period.1 During the era of Sweden’s imperial power we marched as Swedish officers all
over northern and eastern Europe.
There were several Baltic and Russian branches of the family, and a Swedish branch
which still exists today. A member of that branch in recent history was a General Viktor
Balck, the best rider, swimmer, and fencer of the Swedish Army. He was one of the
founders of the modern Olympic Games. His son was a naval officer and the adjutant to
the Swedish minister of war.
In Germany, where we arrived before the Thirty Years’ War, there were three branches
of the family. One settled along the lower Elbe River and still exists in North America.
Another was located in the Mecklenburg area, but has since died out. I come from the
Hannover branch. A member of the Mecklenburg branch who was a high official of the
treasury, Oberfinanzrat2 Balck from Rostock, wrote the history of our family and our
complete family tree going back to 1308. These records are kept in the state archives in
Schwerin.
There are no more Balcks in Finland. By chance I came in contact with the current
owner of Balkis and I have a picture of the estate, which now carries the Finnish name
“Pelkis.” The Baltic-Russian Balcks were especially interesting. At the time of Tsar Peter
the Great they often played important roles. During the Great Northern War3 a General
Balck4 seized and destroyed the city of Elbing. When the tsarevich, the son of Peter the
Great, fled to Germany to escape from his father, he took the pseudonym of “Lieutenant
Balck.” One family branch was elevated to the nobility as counts. The last Count of BalckPolew was the Russian ambassador to Paris in the nineteenth century. He had no male
offspring. We are not, however, related to the Teutonic Order knight Hermann Balck.
The fate of the Countess Lopuchin, née Balck, was rather tragic. She was one of
Russian Empress Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting and was reported to be more beautiful than
the empress herself. Accused of conspiracy by the jealous empress, the countess was
cruelly flogged, her tongue was torn out, and she was exiled to Siberia. In 1762, however,
she was pardoned by Tsar Peter III.5
The last tsarist police commissioner of Saint Petersburg was a General Balck who
played a role in the Rasputin affair. This tsarist chief of police escaped the turmoil of the
Bolshevik Revolution and lived in Belgrade between the two world wars. Other than him,
no Balcks are known to have survived the Bolshevik Revolution.
My Family
After the Thirty Years’ War our branch of the family settled in the Altes Land6 along the
lower Elbe River. The Balcksee7 in that region still bears our name. For two generations
we served as Amtmänner,8 or what we today would call a Landrat,9 in Rotenburg
(Hannover) and in Isernhagen. The magnificent tombstones at the church of Isernhagen
still bear witness to the work and the high standing of our family.
The son of the last Amtmann Balck was a student at the University of Göttingen when
Lower Saxony was conquered by Napoleonic troops. Like many other young men from
the electorate of Hannover, he hastily left for England and joined the 7th Line Battalion of
the King’s German Legion. Courage, a solid education, and his well-developed ability to
draw helped him in short order to become an officer and a member of the duke of
Wellington’s staff, in which capacity he served in the Peninsular War in Spain and
Portugal. There, with the family of Dr. Hume, Wellington’s chief medical officer, the
young Balck met and married Mary Grice, a friend of Dr. Hume’s wife. My great
grandmother, who was born on Barbados in the West Indies, was nicknamed “the
Beautiful Creole.” As it was customary for wives of British officers to accompany their
husbands on deployments, my grandfather was born in Almeida, and his brother also was
born in Portugal, in Coimbra. My great grandfather died young in 1812 in London.
After the Napoleonic Wars my great grandmother moved with her three children to
Hannoversch Münden to live with her sister, who also had married a King’s German
Legion officer named von Windheim. They lived comfortably in Germany on their British
pension. Unfortunately, my great grandmother died young, too, and her children were
raised by her sister. During this time an odd change occurred. The duke of Cambridge had
always shown particular interest in my grandfather, George. Every time the duke passed
through Hannoversch Münden on the way to visiting his intended bride, a Hessian
princess from Kassel, he ordered the two Balck boys to report to him at the post, where he
would have them change his horses and where he assured them that he would do
something for them one day.
Shortly after Aunt Windheim died, my great grandmother’s friend, Mrs. Hume, the
wife of Wellington’s military doctor, approached the duke of Cambridge on behalf of the
children. The duke arranged for my grandfather to move to England, arranged his adoption
by Mr. Brigstock, court preacher to George IV, and bore the cost of my grandfather’s
education. And when my grandfather decided to enter the army rather than becoming a
naval officer, as initially intended by his guardians, the duke purchased his officer’s
commission in the 93rd Regiment of Foot, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Even
beyond that, the duke continued to provide financial support. He personally took care of
my grandfather’s academic education and introduced him to the premier British families.
My grandfather was at the start of a very promising career when he suffered a most
unfortunate accident. During a parade on Barbados in the West Indies he suffered heat
stroke in the midday sun, and as a result lost his eyesight. Queen Victoria used her
personal funds to obtain for my grandfather every possible cure and the consultation of
every key European medical specialist. But it was all without result. My grandfather had
lost his eyesight. He later married the widow of his brother, a Hannoverian officer who
had died in an accident. She was the daughter of the Hannoverian Major General Lütgen.
My grandfather retired from the British Army and lived in Osnabrück after the duke of
Cambridge had secured special legislation making my grandfather a lieutenant colonel
after the fact, thus permanently securing his financial affairs.
Adolescence and Parental Home
My father William10 was an officer through and through. He was the last great tactical
theoretician of the Kaiser’s army, but he was also a pragmatist.11 As a divisional
commander, he received the Pour le Mérite and ended his military career as the governor
of the Baltic Islands. As a brigade commander he was severely wounded near Warsaw in
1914.
His extensive military and general mentorship were priceless assets for me. From early
on he sharpened my senses of historical and political thinking. From the age of ten on I
rode with him almost daily, as much as my schooling would allow. What I observed and
heard during these exercises made a deep impression on me, especially as my father
always introduced me to all military questions. From early childhood, then, I grew up and
was educated as a soldier. But I also learned something else from my father, something
even more significant—a deep sense and understanding for the lowest ranking troops and
the mistakes of our social class. From early on I had to participate as a silent listener when
in the circle of friends and comrades the problems of the army and the people were
discussed with grave concern.
My mother, Mathilde, came from an old and well-established family of legal
professionals. Her father, Landgerichtsdirektor12 Otto Jensen, had been one of the leaders
of the Schleswig-Holstein uprising against Denmark and the right-hand man of the duke of
Augustenburg. My grandfather also was a friend of the empress. We all looked up to him,
awed by this giant patriarch. My grandmother came from a Danish officer’s family.
Although she had become completely German, her grandfather had been a Danish colonel.
As the commander of Copenhagen he had defended the city and citadel against Admiral
Nelson and Wellington—and, ironically, my great grandfather Balck. My mother balanced
my father perfectly. I could not imagine a more happy marriage. She was gifted with a
high academic education combined with common sense and an unusual pedagogical
talent. She was a very deep influence even on my own children.
I was born on 12 December 1893 in Danzig. My father’s various moves then led us to
the Rhine, Berlin, Silesia, and from Posen to Thorn, where I finished school. Like all the
Balcks, I was in constant conflict with school. In the subjects of history, geography, and
German I was always far above average. In modern languages, mathematics, and natural
science I was average. But when it came to the ancient languages I had no interest. It was
only through my deep and thorough knowledge of antiquity, where my father had been my
teacher and motivator, that I was able to barely maintain the necessary grades.
Soldier
Easter 1913 finally arrived. I had been accepted as a Fahnenjunker13 with the Goslar
Jägers.14 I could not have picked a better unit. The officer corps and the troops represented
everything that I had learned in my family home. I was completely comfortable in such an
environment.
The battalion still was under the influence of its second to last commander, the father of
Colonel General Heinz Guderian,15 who had inculcated a sense of respect for even the
lowest-ranking Jäger, freedom of all to express his opinion, toughness and justice while on
duty, and the sense of achievement in one’s accomplishments. My first commander,
Lieutenant Colonel Bauer, knew how to manage and reinforce this legacy with a quiet,
noble, but firm hand. The unit’s noncommissioned officers corps was of extraordinary
quality. Most were skilled hunters who were committed to nine years’ service. Many had
the Einjährige16 or even the Primareife.17 The officers corps was unique in its kind.
Considering the small size of the Jäger branch, an unusually large percentage of its
officers ended up at the highest levels of the army. These included Guderian, General
Bodewin Keitel,18 and General of Mountain Troops General Hans Kreysing. Numerous
officers became division commanders. Joachim Eggeling, who served in the Goslar Jägers
during World War I, later became the Gauleiter19 of Saxony and Anhalt. General
Stephanus was the only officer who refused to swear the Loyalty Oath to Hitler and
resigned—without consequence. Almost throughout, our Jägers were volunteers. Serving
with the Goslar Jägers was a special honor among the Hannoverian farmers and foresters.
A peculiarity of the battalion was the large number of Einjährig Freiwillige,20 which
annually approximated eighty. Since not all of them could be absorbed by the battalion,
the selection for our reserve officer corps was easy. They came from all the professions,
not only the foresters. To the largest extent possible, they were selected based on
character. Accomplishment alone was not enough. In the test of war this selection process
proved itself. There were always a number of one-year volunteers who passed the
qualification to become reserve infantry officers, but declined the commission, preferring
to remain NCOs in the 10th Jäger Battalion rather than become reserve lieutenants in
some infantry regiment. From their ranks came many of our best officers that later
received battlefield commissions. Almost all of them were tall farmers.
The Fahnenjunker received no mercy. Our training was militarily tough, but the
bonding among the officer corps was very tight. What was created here, in terms of
instilling values, was quite unique. My special mentor during that time was Lieutenant
Hans Kreysing, who during World War II served as the commanding general of the Eighth
Army.
In February 1914 I moved to the military school in Hannover. The city of Hannover at
that time was quite a dangerous place for young, vivacious people. Anyone from a wellrespected unit had access to unlimited credit. “Herr Fähnrich,21 sir, this way and that way,
please!” A flood of shady individuals was eager to take advantage of our lack of life
experience. Naturally, we had been warned. But as always, this kind of warning made us
just the more curious. To balance this, the commandants of the military school in
Hannover were always selected based on their tough and hard-core attitudes. Our
commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Waxmann, was the epitome of the Prussian officer. It
was very much the toughest school I ever went through. We hardly had any free time. The
pressure was so great that our teachers and instructors often stuck right with us, as their
lives were no beds of roses either. But, too tough of an environment makes one callous.
Excesses and breaking away to get a taste of freedom occurred like they never would
have, had it not been for the mindlessness of the tough drilling. It was in a way an
antiauthoritarian education.
Colonel Waxmann was clearly ahead of his time when it came to tactics. Throwing
hand grenades was an activity he forced on us—one more reason for us to consider him a
madman. His opinions about the defense corresponded exactly with what we later learned
at the hands of the French. There were, however, two incidents of sharp altercation in front
of us cadets when our tactics instructors, Captains Steuer, Rust, and Giese, openly rebelled
against Waxmann.
Our tactical training area was between Hannover and Hildesheim, a place called Rusty
Mountain. The village of Gross Giesen and the forest of Steuerwald lay close together and
between them ran the Unsinnbach, a small creek. That area was strictly avoided in our
tactical excursions.
The coming war cast its shadows. As early as 1913, when the French introduced threeyear enlistment, my father told me that this meant war within the next two years. France
would not be able to sustain the financial, economic, and human burden. The consequence
would either be war soon, or acceptance of German political superiority and renunciation
of revenge for Alsace and Lorraine.
Easter and Pentecost took me to Colmar in the Alsace region, where my father was a
brigade commander. He gave me an introduction to the political problems of the local
provinces, just as he had done previously when we lived in Thorn and Posen. My father
understood how to win the hearts of the Alsatian people. Our instructional tour brought us
to Metz, rounding out my new impressions of the eastern region. But the journey was
overshadowed by signs of pending war. The assassination in Sarajevo was beginning to
spiral Europe into crisis. We naturally did not speak of anything else. It would have been
unnatural for young people who had chosen to become officers not to be enthusiastically
waiting for the moment to finally prove ourselves.
I was lucky. Right before the outbreak of war I was able to visit with my father in
Göttingen, where at the time he was leading a communications exercise as the chief of the
Field Telegraph Service. And then the war broke out with an unbelievable wave of
enthusiasm. All social class differences were swept away. Germany was a sea of black,
white, and red flags.22 I will never forget how a large crowd of people, mostly laborers,
gave a standing ovation to General Otto von Emmich, and then marched on to the military
school, celebrating us cadets with loud cheering as the future of the army. In earlier days
they had been rather disdainful toward cadets.
The trust was justified. Of the 139 officer candidates at the Hannover War School,
ninety lost their lives by 1 December 1916. Of those of us left in 1918, a good number
were killed in World War II as general officers and division commanders. I am the last
survivor today.23
1
1914
War Breaks Out
Much has been written about the reasons war broke out in 1914, and most of that based on
the politics of the day. Much of what has been written is not very deep. The GermanEnglish differences were fundamental. In a letter to my father, the German crown prince
wrote: “I am concerned with the ever increasing contrast between Germany and England.
This concern increased when in conversation with King Edward VII,1 who was always
especially friendly to me, he openly expressed to me on several occasions that the
differences had to be overcome one way or another. England would not allow the
unilateral economic superiority of Germany for any length of time.”
The fact that tsarist Russia was pushing for war with Germany and consciously drove
toward it has been clearly proven by the publication of documents and files by the later
Bolshevik government. According to Alexander Isvolsky, Russian foreign minister from
1906–1910 and ambassador to Paris from 1910–1917, “I am the father of this war.” And
according to Sergey Sasanov, Russian foreign minister from 1910–1916, “The peaceloving German Kaiser will ensure that we can choose the time for war to break out.”
But what was the reason? Russia was a colonial land with vast estates in the hands of
the landed barons, “the Boyars,” who controlled a class of peasants whose lot only slightly
improved after they had been freed from serfdom. Herein lay the seed for the coming
revolution. After the unfortunate Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 one of the most
important personalities of modern Russian history emerged as prime minister, Pyotr
Stolypin. He concentrated his efforts on the right issue, the unjust land distribution. The
Stolypin Reform created the independent farmers, the Kulaks. This was a large-scale
reform and was very successful.
Naturally the land could only be taken from the landed barons. Their reaction came
soon enough. When in 1911 Stolypin was shot and killed in the theater in Kiev, allegedly
by a social revolutionary, the reform that had begun with such promise came to an end.
That he had been on the right track was proven by the fact that no other social group was
persecuted more by the Bolsheviks than the Kulaks.
As so often when an incompetent government is facing internal problems it cannot
resolve, it seeks to overcome domestic failures through foreign policy successes. The
decision to go to war had been made. Only Germany, which just recently had helped
Russia by remaining neutral during Russia’s war with Japan, was an immediately
convenient adversary. “The road to Constantinople goes through Berlin.” The German
foreign ministry had continuously maintained that Russia would very likely seek friendlier
relations. The Kaiser accurately countered, “The Slavs are now siding with England, by
whom they were beaten in the Far East.”
Germany, which could not make up its mind whether to side with England or Russia,
was caught in between. Since World War I, Germans, as usual, have made Pan-Germanism
partly responsible for the war. This fails to recognize the forces of Pan-Slavism in Russia,
irredentism in Italy, revanchism in France, jingoism in England, and other “isms”
elsewhere. It was a phenomenon of Europe’s imperial age that simultaneously created the
same stupidities all over Europe.
As for Germany’s often blamed naval policies, they probably would have brought
England to the negotiation table in the end. It is an irony that the German-English Colonial
Treaty, which would have brought a great reduction of tensions and a resolution of the
differences, was ready to be signed at the beginning of August 1914. “German-English
relations were never better than in the summer of 1914,” as Winston Churchill said in the
House of Commons. And as Paul Cambon, France’s ambassador to London, expressed
among friends in May of 1914, “We have lost this game.”
It would be interesting for the historian to analyze how German-English agreements
drove the other adversaries to act quickly. It had to be now or never. As Kaiser Wilhelm II
wrote after his abdication: “The French were afraid, even though for the moment they
were assured of English support, that later the English would come to an agreement with
the Germans at their expense.”2 In the final analysis, however, it seemed inevitable that at
the decisive moment both the English and the German sides made mistakes, brought forth
old resentments, and were not able to escape the traps of the previous years, including the
Schlieffen Plan and English ties with France.
But these are all afterthoughts. At the time we were convinced that we had been
attacked by our enemies and we were willing to defend ourselves. Somehow it leaked out
that the 10th Jägers would mobilize in an accelerated fashion. To ensure that I did not miss
anything, I took an overnight taxi to Goslar at the cost of 75 marks, only to learn that I had
two more days. I was supposed to move out with a follow-on unit, the 2nd Field Battalion.
There was nothing I could do about it. The only positive result was that I got to see my
mother, who had come to Goslar for a few hours. Then she left. She later wrote my father,
“Now he belongs to his comrades.”
Liège
We loaded up on 4 August. Amid thundering cheers the train drove into the night. It was
an earnest, sincere enthusiasm. The whole country felt that there was no other way; it had
to be done. I never once saw anyone drunk during the mobilization phase. The movement
through Germany was like a triumphal march; everywhere the same excitement. Germany
was united.
On 6 August we off-loaded in Malmedy and continued on foot toward our battalion.
Liège supposedly had fallen. We moved via Thieux toward Louveigné. In a forest the first
shots rang out, our advance elements were in contact with Belgian Franc-tireurs.3 The
rumor that Liège had been taken was not confirmed. On the contrary, it appeared that
things were not going right at the front. The supply trains of several regiments were
flooding past us, all mixed up. People were telling the most horrific stories. We questioned
a one-year volunteer from the field battalion who was sitting in one of the vehicles.
Charging into a trench, he had received a rifle butt blow to his head, which knocked him
unconscious. When the attack later advanced, he had been brought to the rear. But when
we asked him about one officer or another, the answer was either “Dead!” or “Wounded!”
With fixed bayonets we spent the night in the ditch along the road, numbed by the
apparent defeat.
Scattered troops of the battalion arrived. They all talked about the heavy losses of
mostly officers. They had stormed the Belgian trenches at night, but were then shot up by
our own infantry. The mood of the troops was not really down. On the contrary, they all
were mad at the Belgians. They were not real soldiers, and they maimed our wounded.
After showing a white flag, they then fired on our exposed troops. Entire companies had
surrendered to individual Jägers. And the Belgians were miserable shots, or such were the
reports.
A battalion commander of Field Artillery Regiment Number 11 spent the night with us.
We learned more from him. Six infantry brigades had been committed at night to take
Liège. The most forward troops had already broken through and penetrated partially into
the suburbs of Liège when heavy friendly fire forced them to retreat. The units had been
completely disrupted. During the withdrawal the populace rebelled. Anyone who became
separated from his unit faced potential death from ambush. Units marching through
villages usually had their supply trains ambushed. Shots were fired from all the houses.
When the battalion of Field Artillery Regiment Number 11 passed through Louveigné they
were shot at from all the houses. The battalion commander set up one battery and
destroyed the village. Horror stories upon horror stories, and all were believed.
On 8 August the situation became clearer. Liège had actually fallen. Singing, we
advanced toward the field battalion, down the hill near Louveigné. A dark cloud hovered
over the village with rising flames. That had been their summary punishment. In the town
we encountered the first dead bodies of Belgian farmers, small people with grimacing
faces full of anger and deadly fear. Cattle were running around without their masters. A
few women squatted with the remnants of their belongings, staring with empty eyes. This
was our first glimpse of war.
At noon we arrived at the battalion. Seven officers and 150 Jägers were dead, wounded,
or missing, most of them through friendly fire. Liège has occupied my thinking repeatedly
ever since. It had been a clear victory for the troops, but the mid-level and the higher
leadership had not been up to the situation. Nobody except Ludendorff had shown the
resolve to work through the crisis. Generals who later became highly proven leaders had
failed here. What had happened? The troops had been deployed without training into this
hasty attack. Night fighting was not the strong suit of the German Army. The mid- and
lower-level leadership was not prepared for the required tasks. They were forced to learn
on the battlefield.
That was the situation on 8 August. The Belgians were withdrawing to the west, the
Germans to the east. In between lay the forts of Liège, still defended by their occupants. In
the city of Liège itself, Ludendorff had a single brigade. His tough will and the
recklessness of his personality had carried him through. This success was his alone.
The events of the next few days pushed us back and forth. Once again we passed
through Louveigné. We were ordered to take all male inhabitants prisoner because shots
rang out constantly during the night. We picked up sixty-two. In the parish rectory a
bloody Hussar’s uniform was found. The rectory went up in flames. Nobody thought of
the possibility that the village priest might have been caring for a wounded Hussar.
Despite a general sense of consternation, the prisoners were not shot, but hauled away to
do forced labor.
I was a platoon leader in the 2nd Company, which I had joined. The platoon leaders
along with me were Reserve First Lieutenant Nottebohn, who became a professor and
noted food chemist in Hamburg, and Reserve Second Lieutenant Jung, who became the
chief judge of the state court in Breslau and was also one of the defenders of that city in
1945. In 1918 all three of us returned to Goslar as company commanders, all wounded
many times over. Jung and Nottebohn were among our best officers during the war.
Near Hermalle we crossed the Maas River on 14 August. Belgian government flyers
were posted on the walls of all the houses, warning everyone not to approach us with
weapons in hand. East of the Maas the poster warnings were a bit more ambiguous, urging
the citizens to delay the advance of the enemy.
Onward into France
In the meantime we were attached to General Georg von der Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps.
The French cavalry was near Ramillies Offues. Enemy bicycle troops occupied the hill.
Dust was rising near the edge of a forest. Glimmering in the sunshine we could see a
heavy concentration of French cuirassiers, still wearing chest armor and shiny helmets.
Then things started to happen on our side, too, with machine gun fire reverberating and
artillery firing. Like lightning the bicycle unit jumped off their bikes, dropped down, and
started to fire. Horses reared as shrapnel exploded along the edge of the forest. Then we
attacked. The French fired nervously, aiming too high. Then they abandoned their
positions. On the hill they left some bicycles, rifles, and uniform items. The 29th Jägers
took several prisoners, two artillery pieces, and two machine guns. As we stormed up the
hill, a farmer fired from behind from the roof of his house on our advancing battalion. The
farmhouse was set ablaze, and as I noted in my journal at the time, the farmer hanged
himself. Those were the facts we were convinced of then. Today, I am certain that the
puffs of smoke from the roof of the farmhouse were shots from French scouts who were
aiming too high. But who knew then that the impact from an infantry rifle bullet created a
sharp bang and a dust cloud?
A Jäger detachment was formed from the 10th, 4th, 9th, and 7th Jäger Battalions.4 Our
commander took overall command, and Captain von Rauch took over our battalion. I
became the adjutant, even though I was still a Fähnrich.
On 19 August we made contact with the enemy again. French shrapnel hit the tightly
advancing columns. I had to clear my way back to the battalion with drawn saber through
the quickly withdrawing cavalry. Toward the evening we were positioned south of the
Bois de Buis. Several times I rode across the battlefield from company to company
through artillery fire, withdrawing cavalry, and French patrols.
Up until the fall of Brussels we received the latest Belgian newspapers every day. At
first the Belgians reported they were winning near Liège, then west of Liège, then between
Liège and Brussels, then near Brussels, and then it was over. We were most amused with
the portrayals of morale. The feared German Uhlans5 supposedly were giving themselves
up by the hundreds because of hunger. We were portrayed as just a bunch of hoodlums
that were kept together by the whip, and not wanting anything to do with war. Berlin was
in revolution and the Kaiser had been murdered. The Belgian press, of course, had nothing
but high praise for the Belgian and French soldiers. “What human beings! Such
character!” wrote a correspondent about French soldiers near Dinant. A German prisoner
was quoted as having said, “The Belgians, they’re not just soldiers, they’re lions!” A
Belgian corporal reportedly killed single-handedly all the members of an entire German
battery. Cannons towed by thirty-two horses had supposedly arrived in Liège. “A good
prey for our brave soldiers.” General Otto von Emmich supposedly had lost his Pour le
Mérite for filing false victory reports… so on and so forth.
The German cavalry was moved to the right flank and the enemy withdrew from
Belgium. We were fighting against French cuirassiers. Dismounted, they defended
themselves in an orchard. Their shiny helmets and chest armor, red trousers, and high
boots with knee pads hindered them from handling their carbines and fighting on foot.
How irresponsible it was to send human beings into a war in 1914 with equipment that
had not changed since the Napoleonic Wars.
On 24 August we seized Tournai, fighting against French territorial defense units. We
captured one general officer, one colonel, and six hundred soldiers. The numerous enemy
dead proved the superior marksmanship of our Jägers. Neither backyards, nor street
fighting, nor poor terrain could stop the momentum of our attack. Shots rang out along the
streets and impacted with a sharp bang into the houses behind us. We again heard cries
that the Belgians were shooting at us from the rear. Supposedly shots were even fired at us
from the steeple of the cathedral. In the confusion and tenseness of the street fighting and
the anger about the supposed involvement of civilians in the fighting, a cannon crew
grabbed a bunch of them and used them as human shields to move a gun forward. The
human shield disappeared as the barricades and the houses crumbled under the close-range
artillery barrage. I was able to prevent an artillery volley directed against the cathedral.
Throughout my life architecture was my hobby. My war hysteria was slowly melting
away.
Tournai
Once we were in the city we received the following order from the cavalry corps: “Take as
hostages in Tournai the mayor and two hundred citizens, to include the highest church
official plus twenty priests. Bring them to Ath. Disarm the citizens’ militias; collect all the
weapons; seize all the cash boxes; remove all the flags; destroy all the post, telegraph, and
rail installations; demand 2 million francs in reparations; threaten to destroy and burn the
city, to include all monasteries and churches. Execute this threat at the least sign of
resistance by the citizens or in the event that German military personnel come under fire.”
This order was given because some of the citizens had shot at German troops from the
rear. The staff of the 10th Jäger Battalion was charged with the execution of the order. I
picked two Oberjägers6 and twelve Jägers from my old platoon as a security and covering
force. The remainder of the battalion and the cavalry moved on and only my commander,
Captain von Rauch, and I remained behind in the city, negotiating with the mayor. His
face showed his shock. He finally wrote the note authorizing the tax collection. Policemen
with bells ringing were sent into the streets. In the city hall a cashier’s cage was erected as
young and old arrived to pay. Only gold and silver was accepted, but that was easier said
than done. Inside city hall a huge table was set up with our twelve Jägers sitting around it,
and bags full of gold and silver were emptied out as the Jägers counted and counted. When
it came to the silver we quit. We counted and weighed one bag, and then we estimated the
weight of the other bags from that. The gold pieces, however, had to be counted
individually. A cavalry supply unit coming through helped out. Any help was welcome.
How easy it would have been for a 100 Franc coin to disappear into a boot. We could have
never prevented it. But in the end it all added up correctly to the last cent. German ethics
and morals probably never again rose to this level. No one ever thought of threatening
disciplinary action before the process started.
There remained the two hundred hostages to be taken to Ath, among which was the
very old and invalid bishop. I recommended to my commander to use a train, and we
assembled an engine and three cars for the hostages. I got into the engine and the
expedition toward Ath started to move. My commander took two automobiles full of gold
and silver along the same route and informed follow-on units that the approaching train
was not enemy.
We all linked up again in the market square in Ath. We cleared a house and then the
hostages were brought in. Oberjäger Giessen along with his twelve men remained in Ath
as the German commandant. The mayor of Ath was made responsible for the security and
the rations for all. The gold and the silver were handed over to the commissariat of the IV
Reserve Corps. A few weeks later Oberjäger Giessen caught up with us again. He had
accomplished everything flawlessly, and he even had a letter of appreciation from the
town of Ath attesting that he had performed his duties carefully and energetically,
although all by himself inside enemy territory. The bishop and the mayor of Tournai also
thanked him in writing, emphasizing how tactfully and carefully he had accomplished his
mission. The commandant of the relieving garrison also wrote to us, praising our people.
Those were our Oberjägers, all of them trained hunters and foresters. No better NCOs
could be found anywhere else in the German Army.
The English
After we accomplished our mission in Tournai we were eager to move forward to our
battalion. Behind us, the streets of Tournai were littered with French uniforms and
weapons. The French territorial brigade had thrown away anything they could. We pressed
on. At 1700 hours, three hours after the seizure of Tournai, we stood in formation. The II
Cavalry Corps had the mission of cutting off the English retreat. Consequently we
marched as fast as we could. At 2130 hours we crossed the French border. After another
twenty-five kilometers we had a short halt of two and a quarter hours near Marchiennes.
Then we set out again as dawn was breaking. At midday we had another four hours’ rest,
then we pushed on another eighteen kilometers. We finally bivouacked at St.-Hilaire, after
having marched fifty-five kilometers within twenty-four hours.
Near Carnières we ran into supply units, we heard cannon fire, and we asked our way
toward our battalion. West of Beauvais we found it, on the attack against the English.
Their forward positions had been overrun, and the first English dead were in the otherwise
empty trenches. In their khaki uniforms they were hardly distinguishable from their
surroundings.
Gently and without cover, the hill in front of us rose to the crest line between the
villages of Cattenières and Fontaine-au-Pire. There was no cover at all for the attacker. As
our men closed in at seven hundred meters, there was still no sign of the enemy’s main
position. Only our dead and wounded were proof that he too knew how to shoot. Slowly
the attack continued, as four hundred meters, and then three hundred meters separated us
from the adversary. I was sent back to report to the commander of the cavalry corps,
General von der Marwitz. I returned with the order not to continue the advance. The
leading elements of the infantry were in contact. I was just behind the fighting positions of
the battalion staff when the hill exploded to life. The English jumped up and stormed
forward. They hit the ground after making short advances into our fire. Then from our side
came the familiar order: “Fix bayonets and advance quickly.” It was an unforgettable
sight. Just as if one man had stood up, the German line raised, officers and NCOs with
drawn sabers far in front. Everybody stormed forward in a rush and overran the English
position. Recklessly we pushed toward the retreating enemy. Farther into the hinterlands,
the road near Ligny was full of retreating English columns. Artillery took up positions
among us and fired into the withdrawing adversary. Then it was all over. The utmost that
human nature is capable of had been accomplished.
What had led to this assault? On the English side Field Marshal Sir John French, as he
later stated in his report, had decided on 26 August to halt the fight “in order to prevent
total annihilation.” The English launched a number of limited attacks to facilitate breaking
contact. The commander of our 1st Company recognized what was happening. Senior
Lieutenant Kichheim was a veteran of the fighting in Africa. As the English reinforced
their forward lines, Kichheim realized that if they managed to do that we would be lost.
So, we started moving forward. On command, everybody jumped up and the adjacent
units followed. We carried the day.
With just a few Jägers far ahead of his company, Kichheim ran into forty Englishmen
and was hit in the neck by a bullet. The following day we buried 50 officers, Jägers, and
Oberjägers of the 3rd and 10th Battalions, together with 150 English troops. Some 250 to
300 unwounded English prisoners remained in our hands.
We had fought against a tough enemy. In some positions he had fought to the last man,
without giving up. And as soon as he had disengaged, he withdrew in a calm and
organized fashion. The prisoners shook our hands: “You are great guys. We never thought
you could do this.” As a British General Staff report later noted about the attack of the
10th Jäger Battalion, “Losses did not stop the German infantry of 1914.” Of course, we
had fought on the side of the English against Napoleon, and “Waterloo” was inscribed on
our cap badges.
The engagement at Fontaine-au-Pire remained a lesson for me throughout my entire
career. A successful attack is less costly than a failed defense.
On to the Marne River
The battalion moved into the cuirassier barracks in Cambrai. When we left the next day
the battalion looked a little odd. Almost everybody wore a small red, white, and blue
feather hackle on his cap, which normally adorned the helmets of the cuirassiers in
parades. White cuirassier gloves were also very much sought after for the march into
Paris.
We marched behind the cavalry. Several French territorial divisions were thrown
against us and were decimated. When things went against them, they just stripped off their
uniforms and put on their civilian clothes. Back in Tournai we had run across a shoemaker
who, in spite of the fighting and the noise, was sitting in his shop busily hammering on a
boot. There was a lot of laughter when someone noticed that he was still wearing red
trousers. During those days my commissioning paperwork to lieutenant finally reached
me. I actually had been promoted when we mobilized.
The Jäger battalions that were attached to the cavalry were authorized a truck pool. We
never saw ours. Only the 4th Jägers had theirs, but the vehicles were used for all kinds of
purposes, not for moving the troops forward quickly. It is odd how the troops do not know
what to do with a modern concept if it has not been trained for and rehearsed. What all
these Jäger battalions could have accomplished if they, secured by their bicycle
companies, had been moved forward by their motorized elements. The General Staff
officer who had thought this one up was too modern and practically oriented for his time.
Nobody understood him.
There was a similar example during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. The
French mitrailleuse7 was a weapon that gave the French the tactical upper hand over any
enemy. For security reasons, however, the weapons were not issued until after the
mobilization. Neither the troops nor their leadership knew how to use them. Their chance
for victory had been gambled away.
The Battle of the Marne
On 4 September we crossed the Marne near La Ferté–Jouarre. Since the bridges had only
been haphazardly repaired, we had to leave behind all nonessential vehicles. From a hill
near Jouarre the Eiffel tower greeted us on the horizon. There was Paris and victory. Near
Coulommiers we bivouacked in a barn with the staff of the 2nd Cavalry Division, which
we were attached to. It was very interesting to listen in on the numerous incoming reports
and radio transmissions. The big picture was beginning to form. We saw in our heads how
the Second Army to our left was engaged in heavy fighting and how the French advancing
from Paris were breaking into our right flank.8 We followed the heroic fight of the IV
Reserve Corps under General Hans von Gronau and lived through the excitement of how
the corps of the First Army executed a forced march to provide him relief. The crisis was
mounting, as we clearly could recognize. The cavalry of the First Army now stood alone
in the gap that was created by the right flank inner move of the First and Second Armies.
Slowly the enemy was coming to life. The English Army turned around and pushed into
the gap.
Things had been calm near Coulommiers. We were alerted on the morning of 6
September and stood at alert on top of a hill south of Maupertuis, near a chateau and a
road fork. A perfectly straight road ran south through a forest. Behind us to the left were a
few large haystacks, and close by a herd of grazing goats. Again and again English cavalry
patrols tried to observe our positions from the forest. Suddenly, the English horse artillery
approximately fifteen hundred meters away moved forward on the road and turned toward
the right. Some of the mounted gunners fell to our machine gun fire, but the English
battery soon started to fire on us. We moved back to the hill north of Maupertuis. I was the
last to leave our forward position and moved back on a bicycle, when all of a sudden I
started taking heavy, close-range fire from among the herd of goats. Some Englishmen had
hidden there all this time.
But the German advance was over and the retreat from the Marne began. (In 1940 I just
happened to be at the same spot again. Everything was unchanged. The haystacks were
still there, and so was the herd of goats. That time, however, we were not headed toward
Paris; we were coming from there.)
Slowly we withdrew toward the north, as the English put increasing pressure on us. An
infantry brigade with supporting heavy artillery arrived. The Marne front was to be held at
all costs. Crossing a negligently unguarded and undestroyed bridge across the Marne, the
English cut deep into our defensive lines, creating a new and dangerous situation.
Undoubtedly the two cavalry corps under General von der Marwitz did not master the
situation, which influenced significantly the decision to withdraw.
The German cavalry was committed incorrectly in 1914. It was too weak on the right
flank and too strong in the Lorraine region, where it did not belong at all. Its true
accomplishment was its offensive reconnaissance, attacking and pushing back every
enemy cavalry patrol. The captured prisoners provided an insight into the enemy situation
and resulted in significant reports to the higher leadership. The enemy’s cavalry failed to
produce such results. He was blinded by the aggressive attacks launched by our young
cavalry officers. Consequently, the French Army command for the longest time did not
realize the extent of the threat from the German right flank.
Some of the cavalry units were led brilliantly on the operational level. The operational
leadership of General von der Marwitz was superb. Nonetheless, the troops’ tactical
proficiency and their equipment were inadequate. The units did not have enough machine
guns and artillery, and had no field kitchens. Not used to fighting dismounted, the
courageous cavalry regiments were doomed to failure when they were attacked along the
Marne, and with huge consequences in the following days. The fact that the German
cavalry shared these deficiencies with the cavalries of most other armies of 1914 excuses
nothing. Only the English and the Russian cavalries were up to date. The latter especially
was capable of executing a wide range of battlefield tasks.
Withdrawal
The die was cast. On 10 September at 0530 hours we stood-to in Coulombs, ready to
march north. All the roads were clogged with supply trains and ammunition convoys that
were all moving without orders. There was no getting through anywhere, and nobody
knew what was going on. Only one thing was clear, the First Army was moving back.
Around 0830 we slowly started moving. The convoys and the unit march columns moved
forward side-by-side in jerks and halts. Added to this was the insufferable feeling of the
unknown. There were no orders for reconnoitering, for trail parties, or for anything else.
Finally, upon my insistence, we sent a bicycle patrol back to our start point. Gefreiter9
Bertz returned and reported that the English had started to pursue us along a parallel
course. Around noon they caught us as we were crossing a barren flat hilltop. English
shrapnel started exploding right amid the columns and the convoys. We could see clearly
the English gun crews servicing their pieces in an open, uncovered battery position.
Wild panic broke out among the supply clerks, and all efforts to bring them under
control failed. Like a wild storm everybody rushed on, creating disorder in the organized
formations. The heavy ammunition carriers of the foot artillery10 raced across the fields.
One soldier fell off the driver’s seat and his head was smashed by a wheel. Others
unhitched the horses, jumped on them two men at a time, and disappeared. I was able to
stop an ambulance with my pistol drawn and force them to load a severely wounded
Feldwebel11 of the Grenadier Guards Regiment.12
The battalion was still a little farther behind. I rode back to meet them and redirect their
route. Even here we encountered artillery fire, but one by one we got through. Our
machine gun carriers often had to be pulled up the steep embankments with four horses.
The English pushed hesitatingly at first, later more strongly with cavalry. Our 4th and 1st
Companies that covered our retreat beat back every attack. Not a single Jäger who became
separated from his unit considered giving himself up. In numerous small engagements
they fought their way back to the battalion. Thank God the pressure of the English soon
decreased.
In a village where the road split, I remained behind with several troops to redirect the
ones that were separated. I acquisitioned wine and food and was able to revive the spirits
of a fair number of these brave souls. The battalion reassembled in Ougly, in the forest of
Villers-Cotterêts. Our retreat had been superbly covered by the 4th Company under
Reserve Captain Richter, a forester in civilian life. We also had the 4th Machine Gun
Detachment and a radio signal unit with us. We did not know anything about the friendly
or enemy situations. As always in this kind of situation, one saw and expected the enemy
everywhere. The signal unit was not able to establish contact, and our staff detachment
was gone.
Finally, I was given an automobile and the mission to establish contact with anybody. I
drove from hill to hill, observing as I went. I finally reached Villers-Cotterêts, where I
found a scene of peaceful camp life. As I drove into the town, large columns of infantry
were marching through. Our assumption that the First Army had been beaten was false.
On the contrary, they had been victorious and only had to be pulled back because of the
fatal gap that opened up between the First and Second Armies.
We almost had been annihilated only a few kilometers away from an intact infantry
division. The infantry regiments I encountered had fought on the left flank of the First
Army. They all looked very well. Their strength situation was better than ours, and we had
believed that they had been almost completely destroyed. All of a sudden Oberjäger
Wolters was standing in front of me with our complete supply train, which he had brought
there without any losses. How he accomplished that was inexplicable.
“Supply train is ready, the meals from the field kitchen are prepared!” he reported.
Soon the battalion arrived. The reunion with Wolters was a happy one. We bivouacked
north of Villers-Cotterêts. Jäger August Bode from the 1st Company appeared in a tailcoat
and top hat and started entertaining everybody. You could not kill the spirit of these men.
On 12 September we were in positions as the reserve of the II Army Corps at TernySorny, near the Aisne River. The Battle of the Marne was over. Schlieffen’s plan had
failed. Right from the outset it had had two weak points. One was political. An attack
through Belgium made conflict with England inevitable. Even Napoleon on St. Helena
had said: “C’est pour l’Anvers que je suis ici.”13 But the political element was not
Schlieffen’s strong point. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz thought as much, at any rate.
Furthermore, the strategic thinking was driven purely by a Continental perspective, and
England was not even considered to be a serious threat factor. A large portion of the
responsibility for the failure lay with the leadership of the Reich. Chancellor Theobald von
Bethmann-Hollweg—his memoirs speak volumes—had resigned himself to a military fait
accompli in his highly compartmented and bureaucratic thinking. He avoided any kind of
analytical debate concerning the military plans. One only had to compare the often sharp
and difficult exchanges between Moltke and Bismarck in dealing with similar questions.
Nor did the Kaiser play the role that was traditionally his, as umpire and balancer between
civilian and military matters. Wars are won and lost politically, and we entered into this
one handicapped by the most unfavorable political concepts.
The second weak point was that the Schlieffen Plan, even though it allowed for
operational surprise, naturally had to lead to a rather difficult situation in the Paris region.
The first supply crisis should have been anticipated there. The French infrastructure of
Paris as a world metropolis offered all sorts of operational opportunities. The system of
reinforced forts on the eastern city limits allowed the French to accept risk by leaving the
front line between Belfort and Verdun uncovered. They superbly used that to their
advantage, especially as the German leadership lacked the fortitude to overcome the crisis.
It would have been quite possible to prevail, even after the serious operational mistakes
made during the border battles and the withdrawal of two corps from the decisive right
flank.14 Schlieffen’s warning “Make the right flank strong!” had been forgotten.
Would persistence in the Battle of the Marne have brought about the decision in the
West? In hindsight the answer can only be “possibly,” or “maybe.” Even if there had been
a clear victory, the railroad and the supply situation would have forced an operational
pause in the action. This was especially necessary because the essential operational arm,
the cavalry, had been marched to death and could no longer sustain the necessary
operations deep in the enemy’s rear. One thing is certain, however, the continuation of the
Battle of the Marne would have left us in a much more favorable position to conduct
future operations. It also would have been a tremendous moral advantage had we
succeeded in breaking Paris away as the political center and the hub of the French
infrastructure.
The withdrawal from the Marne had been initiated by Lieutenant Colonel Richard
Hentsch, an extremely intelligent and gifted General Staff officer who had been sent as a
liaison to the First and Second Armies by Moltke. The controversy surrounding him to this
day centers on the following issues: What was his mission? Did he overstep his authority?
Did he analyze the situation correctly? The issue was never whether he had been qualified
to do this mission. Intelligence by itself is a beautiful thing in some professions. In
military life intelligence alone is not enough. In fact, it can be downright dangerous, as it
is often coupled with pessimism. Intelligence in the military arena requires a strong and
decisive character as a balance. Hentsch did not have what Clausewitz had called the
“harmonious union of powers.”
A man like Hentsch was an excellent advisor to a leader, but not a leader himself.
Ludendorff near Liège had been different. Personalities like Hentsch are militarily
dangerous. Highly accomplished as a support player, they find themselves in a position
sooner or later where they have to take responsibility and make decisions—and then they
fail. The failure to heed similar alarm signals led directly to Stalingrad and Paulus.15
The problem of the talented support player was not a new one. Russian general Mikhail
Skobelev once told his chief of staff, Alexei Kuropatkin, “You will always accomplish
great things as the second in charge; God help Russia if you are ever put in charge.” But
during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 Kuropatkin was the man in charge.
The German situation in 1914, however, was a complicated one. Since France had
fortified its borders between Switzerland and Belgium during the 1880s and 1890s, there
was no room for operations in those sectors. The only available maneuver room was in
Belgium itself, with all the known political disadvantages. What other choice was there? A
frontal attack against the French eastern border would have shifted the decision from the
operational level to the tactical level, with doubtful success and a high price in blood.
Furthermore, the necessary, immense artillery assets were lacking for such an option. That
plan was a nonstarter.
What remained was defense in the West and attack in the East, based on continuous
fortification of the German western border. As shown during the Russo-Japanese War, and
as the French later demonstrated to us, barbed wire combined with the machine gun gave
the defense new and extremely strong capabilities. Politically this solution offered the
possibility for France and the western powers to declare peace and, therefore, deny
England the pretext to declare war, which it urgently needed to do. “A passive fending off
of enemy strikes” would not have been in contrast to the classic teachings of Clausewitz.
As a prerequisite, however, we would have to have had a unified, strong civil-military
leadership that could have maintained things under perfect control. But such was
completely missing on the civilian side. As Bismarck once said, “Just wait until you have
a real bureaucrat as a chancellor; you will have some real problems then.”
The Kaiser, who often was right on target, wanted to redirect the army at the last
moment to march east, in order to keep England out of the war. But it was already too late.
Missed opportunities could not be recovered, and the dead hand of Schlieffen still lay
heavy on the course of world history.
Wisdom always comes after the fact. It is impossible to prove that England would have
been kept out of the war if Germany had issued a proclamation toward France along the
lines, “We will not attack, but we will repel any attack; and we will respect the neutrality
of Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands.” There is much to support
such a theory, but there are many points against it, as noted in the letter from the crown
prince to my father.
The main point I want to stress here is the necessity of a unified civilian and military
leadership, and how flexible both must be to avoid getting sucked into unpredictable
situations that turn previously established plans into disasters. Bismarck was able to do
this. Always under the premise of a free rein in all areas, he was able to act in accordance
with the situation and at the right moment.
The Race to the Sea
The following weeks were marked by the “Race to the Sea.” Since no one could come up
with a large-scale, unconventional, operational solution, Falkenhayn initiated a process of
constantly reaching for an open flank. But since the French had a better and more intact
railroad network, they were always able to get there first. Every envelopment we
attempted ended in a blocked frontal attack.
After eight days of bivouacking without tents in the mud and rain as the reserve of the
II Army Corps, we were withdrawn and set out to march in the direction of Chauny. Motor
vehicles arrived to pick us up. With a sinister look on his face, a transportation officer got
out of the lead car and reported that a French cavalry division had attacked Chauny and
everything was ablaze and destroyed. As we advanced, however, we found everything
very peaceful in Chauny. A small fire had triggered the shocking reports. And then another
transportation officer stumbled in, saying that the rear commander was reporting a French
infantry brigade advancing from Noyon toward Chauny. But that was unlikely, because the
headquarters of the XI Reserve Corps was located in Noyon. Later we learned that the
ominous brigade in Chauny turned out to be a column of prisoners. Rumors chased
rumors. The more incredible it sounded, the more it was believed.
We were handed off to the IX Reserve Corps and were committed to heavy fighting the
next day at Bethancourt, without artillery support. We took half the village with intense
street fighting, after which our detachment commander broke contact. We then attached
ourselves to the 7th Cavalry Division. A Bavarian infantry brigade arrived, preceded by
some of the wildest rumors. We were quite disappointed that they looked just like any
other human beings.16
On 21 August the Bavarian brigade was attacked in Lassigny by a Moroccan division17
that was twice as strong. We were in an especially good position to attack the Moroccans
in their flank, but our battalion commander did not budge and we eventually marched off
toward the II Cavalry Corps. As darkness set in, a Pomeranian infantry division18 arrived.
They had marched the sixty kilometers in one stretch with just one two-hour rest period,
an impressive accomplishment. The incident at Lassigny had some consequences. When
we reported to the battalion commander in Plessis-en-Cachleux a written communication
had just arrived from Major General Karl von Schoch, the commander of the Bavarian
brigade: “How the Jäger Battalion, during the hour of the greatest danger, could abandon
my 15th Regiment in order to follow an order that had been given without knowledge of
the situation by Higher Cavalry Command 2 requires an explanation.”
My company commander, Captain von Rauch, unshaven for weeks and sporting a
sinister, graying full beard, jumped at the battalion commander, who was standing there in
his pajamas, looking quite comfortable. Rauch yelled at him that he had compromised the
honor of the battalion.
“Captain von Rauch, I will court-martial you!”
“Fine, then I can finally tell what was really going on.”
All the pent-up anger of the last few weeks exploded from the upstanding von Rauch.
Finally the battalion commander agreed to drive immediately to the Bavarian general and
to patch things up. That was a characteristic of the 10th Jägers—honest and candid to
higher authority, even at the risk of being blunt.
The advance units of the Sixth Army19 arrived from the Lorraine area just in time to
prevent a large-scale envelopment by the French on our right wing. We continued
marching north. Two French battalions were pushed south toward us by the Prussian 11th
Landwehr Brigade,20 which came from the Wedding district of northern Berlin. While we
attacked from the south, we observed the Landwehr skirmish line moving forward from
the north. We were establishing a cauldron, like in a hunt. Eventually the cavalry rode into
the cauldron and cleaned it out with their lances. I then rode through the cauldron toward
the Landwehr. Frenchman lay next to Frenchman. Our Landwehr soldiers were something
else. How much use we could have gotten out of them if upon mobilization they had been
equipped and manned in the same manner as the active and reserve units. This would have
been possible without much effort.
The French had the advantage most of the time because of their better railroad net. The
slowly arriving elements of the Sixth Army were thrown into the fight piecemeal as they
were de-trained, and without being concentrated. They attacked, defended themselves, and
attacked again until the lines became stagnant and trench warfare set in. We finally got
hung up on the right wing of the I Bavarian Army Corps. Continued forward movement
would have required reinforcements, and we should have been withdrawn under French
pressure.
On 26 September we stood on alert at Flaucourt, near a sugar refinery with a tall
chimney. Then artillery fire started hitting our covered positions. Someone supposedly
saw signals from the high chimney being sent toward the enemy. A search found French
soldiers in civilian clothes in the flu that led from the fireplace to the chimney. They were
members of the home defense, allegedly on the way to their positions. A summary courtmartial convicted them to death, and the sentence was executed. Everyone was convinced
of their guilt, and still… for a long time I had a bitter taste about it. The witness statements
were watertight. The judges were seasoned, calm, older officers, some of them with law
degrees. Myself, I was never comfortable with the conclusion that they had been Franctireurs. I had a bad feeling about it, but at the time I would have sworn to the facts as they
had been presented.
Years later I was sitting with a friend of my father’s, one of our most experienced
generals of World War I and an extremely intelligent man. Near Liège during night
fighting in a forest, as he was at the point of a group of soldiers storming the Belgian lines
with saber drawn, a soldier stumbled and stabbed him with his bayonet in the ribs. With
the cry, “Fusiliers, take revenge for your dying general,” he sank to his feet and awaited
the hero’s death that never came. He told me this story and added, “In my brigade sector
there were no more Franc-tireurs in Belgium.”
All of a sudden it became so clear to me. Since then I have studied again and again the
Belgian Franc-tireurs war. The Belgians were justified in their conduct by the Hague
Convention on Land Warfare. But they have always declined to refer to this convention
and insisted instead that the Franc-tireur war only existed in German imagination.
Studies of unfortunate events, such as in Leuven,21 attribute the German reactions to
nervousness and war hysteria. The counterargument is that any such hysterical reactions
would have been impossible in the brilliantly trained and superbly disciplined German
Army.
What then is the truth? War hysteria and the resulting panic can undoubtedly grab hold
of the best and most disciplined troops, especially in the early days of a war. Nobody is
immune. I was a witness to such events often enough. Reports and statements from
participants should be considered with skepticism. On the other hand, it is impossible to
dismiss hard evidence. Communication lines were cut and German soldiers suffered
gunshot wounds. The latter clearly were inflicted by civilians, because shotguns were not
normal issue in any army.22 Near Leuven wounds from shotgun pellets were well
documented. Clearly, civilians there had fired on German soldiers, and consequently all
the other witness statements gained credibility.
Thus, I come to the following conclusion. A Franc-tireur war did take place in some
areas, encouraged by the often unclear declarations of the Belgian government. But many,
many instances of partisan warfare did not occur, and can only be explained by a war
hysteria reinforced by the many Franc-tireur stories from the 1870–1871 war. Everyone
was prepared for the worst and expected to experience it.
Back at Flaucourt, meanwhile, the Jäger battalions attacked Dompierre–Becquincourt.
A wide flatland descended toward the twin villages. Slowly the attack gained momentum.
The staff was positioned near a barn, from where we had good observation of our zone.
We saw a general with his aide, calmly walking along the trenches under heavy fire. “He
must have lost his staff and is lost himself,” I said. “You know,” Captain Wagner, our
acting battalion commander that day, said to me, “Judging from his hand gestures, that
could be Father Balck.” He knew my father from Thorn. It was him. We were very happy.
I was able to spend the afternoon with him. My father said, “I actually expected you to be
in the front lines.”
After my father left I resumed my adjutant tasks. Dompierre–Becquincourt was
supposed to be taken by a night attack. The 4th and 9th Jägers would conduct a frontal
attack while the 10th Jägers moved around from the left and took the town from the rear.
Night was coming on. The enemy occupied farms on either side of us, but we bypassed
them without triggering an alarm. After making a sweeping movement we arrived at the
southwest entrance to the town without firing a shot. To the left and right we encountered
high walls and hedgerows, which we had to work our way through. The 1st Company fell
in on the road and we initially thought that the town was free of the enemy. Then flashes
erupted from the entrance of the town and bullets whizzed through the streets. A French
battalion deployed across the road in two lines and opened fire. Losses! Confusion!
I grabbed the rifle of a Jäger standing next to me and rushed forward. Four paces in
front of the French line our attack broke down. I hit a wall to my immediate right and then
crawled back on all fours. Uninterrupted, the French fire whipped along the street. Finally
we all found each other gathered sideways behind a hedgerow. Of everyone who I had
started out with, I was the only one uninjured. Cries like “Password Kaiser!” and “10th
Jägers here!” were immediately picked up by the French and reverberated through the
night. Finally everything was quiet. We heard steps in the street and then a French captain
stood in front of the hedgerow. “Rendezvous!” he called out. A shot rang out and he
dropped.
The 2nd Company was now storming ahead, and our group started to move too. We
entered the farmhouses and cleared them one after another. Since Liège we had learned
quite a bit. Out of one basement a Frenchman brought thirty of his comrades with him. We
had the village, but we knew nothing about the 9th and 4th Jägers. In order to clarify the
situation I was sent back to the Bavarian brigade, to which the three Jäger battalions were
currently attached. I worked my way back and forth through French security and returned
after a few hours with the information that the night attack had been cancelled shortly after
we were in position to jump off. The order had not reached us in time, and now we were
ordered to withdraw immediately.
By daybreak we were back in our initial positions with our walking wounded and sixty
prisoners from a Nancy regiment. After collapsing into a death-like sleep, we were
relieved by the 4th and 9th Jägers. We then worked our way toward Dompierre. Reserve
Captain Richter, one of our best, took over command of the battalion. He immediately
initiated the attack. The staff was in the most forward positions, and Dompierre was under
heavy fire. Without firing a shot and at a quick pace, the battalion closed the nine hundred
meters to the village. The enemy laid down a lot of fire, but it was all too high. Suddenly
our forward line broke into a run, shouting. All along the front the butt ends of French
rifles stuck up from the turnip field. They had no intention of engaging in a bayonet fight.
Becquincourt fell quickly. An open field lay in the direction of Dompierre. I crossed the
field with one Oberjäger and found myself ten meters behind a tightly packed French
trench. The French Chasseurs Alpins23 were firing into the right flank of our advancing
2nd Company. From behind a gate I fired into the trench from the standing position. At
first they did not notice us, then they turned toward me. But I had the advantage. Finally
several rifle butts appeared in the air,24 and they gave up. We then stormed down the
village’s main street as the fleeing Chasseurs Alpins emptied out into the middle of the
street from the farmhouses left and right. Some we shot, but most of them surrendered.
Dompierre was ours and the right flank of the I Bavarian Army Corps was secured. We
had captured unwounded some five hundred men of the 11th and 5th Chasseurs Alpins,
and we buried approximately two hundred more. The 11th Chasseurs Alpins had been
virtually destroyed. They had put up a good fight.
Heavy artillery fire then hit the village, killing some of the wounded. We dug in and
sent out patrols. The French artillery fired at us at just about the same time each day. In the
evenings the regimental bands moved forward, and across the wide fields of the Picardy
the sounds of the “grosser Zapfenstreich”25 rang out majestically. On 18 October we
started moving again. At Peronne we loaded up and started heading toward Lille.
Ypres
Near Ypres we attempted an envelopment one more time. On the German side the newly
reorganized Fourth Army consisted of hastily trained war volunteers, reinforced by
infantry units and artillery that had been used in the seizure of Antwerp. They met in a
frontal engagement against English forces that were brought up from the Aisne River
sector. But the flanks of the opposing armies had reached the sea. There were no longer
any operational options. Decisions were reduced to the tactical level of attempting a
frontal penetration against a well-dug-in and especially courageous and tough adversary.
The question was whether the newly raised and totally inexperienced German units were
up to such a task.
After an unbelievably wonderful rest break in Lille we returned to the army-level
cavalry that attacked the English at Ypres through the gaps between our Fourth and Sixth
Armies. We advanced swiftly toward the English positions through the overgrown terrain.
The 1st Bavarian Jägers were to our left, and the 4th Jägers to our right. During the night,
an English bicycle company launched a surprise attack. With his saber in his hand, their
courageous leader, a Captain Peel, fell into our position. We found on him a regimental
newspaper that described the composition of the divisions we were facing, and the English
positions were clearly marked on his map. He also was carrying a detailed divisional
order. But none of this made it up to higher headquarters, where it could have been
analyzed and blood could have been spared. It all ended up as war souvenirs back home.
Both sides were still very much like children at this point in the war.
Our advance was heavily flanked by high ground on our right. It had to be cleared first.
That was done superbly by the Wedding column, our old friends the Prussian 11th
Landwehr Brigade, supported by artillery fire and our machine guns. We were able to see
every detail of the action. Scottish guard units with fixed bayonets glistening in the sun
launched a counterattack. Supported by well-timed and -aimed artillery fire, the Scotsmen
flooded back. Their officers drew their sabers and forced the troops forward, but our
Landwehr troopers did not budge. The enemy dead lay next to more dead in front of their
positions.
Three army corps replaced the army-level cavalry. The attack was scheduled for 30
October, led by the XV Army Corps. We were assigned narrow attack zones. Closely
behind every battalion a battery was dug in, and following heavy artillery barrages we
were supposed to attack at 0900 hours. The tension was intense. Nobody was familiar with
this kind of attack. Our artillery often fired too close and into our own positions. At 0900
the Bavarian Jägers on our left were at the ready. But from the right an order was passed
along: “Stand down until 0945!” Nobody knew where it came from, but a critical pause
developed and the English started to get active.
My battalion commander sent me forward. I ran into my old 2nd Company and yelled
into their position, “Everybody listen to my order… up and forward!” Not a Jäger lagged
behind. In short order we overran three successive trench lines. We were in front of the
fourth trench line when white flags appeared, and then disappeared, and then appeared
again. As shots rang out, the commander of 2nd Company, Captain Radtke, collapsed right
next to me. He had been shot dead through the heart. I was hit in the left hip. I stumbled
and fell right in front of the Englishman who had shot at me, and I was able to kill him
with a pistol shot as he was rechambering his rifle. Then the attack just swooped right over
us. The waving of the white flags followed by the fired shots had enraged our soldiers. No
quarter was given.
In hindsight the conduct of the English can be explained. It was not, as had been
assumed at the time, an intentional ruse. Rather, it was an indicator of the crumbling
resistance. Some of the English were ready to give up and raised a white flag; others were
not and continued to fire. The consensus within the English line shifted back and forth
erratically.
Artillery galloped forward and went into battery in the open positions between us. A
reserve regiment moved ahead to the sound of music. Then one of the walking wounded
escorted me to the rear. A medical NCO from my father’s old brigade patched me up: “So
honored to bandage the son of our old brigade commander.” In the evening I arrived at an
overflowing field hospital in Lille and a few days later I was on a hospital train to Leipzig.
Leipzig meant nothing to me. My mother lived in Hamelin at that time. So, in Schwerte
I had them take me off the train. Two Red Cross members loaded me onto a stretcher and
put me in a freight car of a local train that brought me to Hamelin. There they took me
across the town to my mother’s house. They rang the doorbell, the door opened, and I was
home. My telegram telling her I had been wounded arrived after me.
Back Home
Germany was still beautiful then. Everybody supported the soldiers; everybody was proud
of them. Everyone was proud to make sacrifices. There was no pessimism at that point.
The people wanted victory. My wounds healed quickly. Shortly after Christmas I reported
back to duty at the replacement depot in Goslar.
Our replacement battalion also had made history—of sorts. On the day of its activation
it locked up the corps deputy commanding general in an arrest cell. It all happened
because of the so-called Goldautos,26 which were crisscrossing Germany to transfer gold
from France to Russia. According to Kühlmann27 in his memoirs, this scheme to
circumvent all normal money transfer channels ran counter to all human logic, which is
why it was so successful. But once the word got out, war hysteria became rampant. Every
village was turned into a fortress, street intersections were occupied, and everybody was
hunting down the money on wheels. Even the 10th Jäger Replacement Battalion got
caught up in it. North of Goslar an Oberjäger along with a military police detail were
manning a road intersection. They had been briefed specifically to be on the lookout for a
prominent Russian spy in a German uniform. As a car approached they halted it and found
an old general officer without an entourage in the back, and concluded that must be him.
“Your Excellency, your papers, please!”
“I do not have them. I left my mobilization orders at home. I am the newly assigned
deputy commanding general of X Corps.”
“That’s impossible. You are the Russian spy.”
Two Jägers got into the back of the car, the Oberjäger got in right next to the driver, and
two Jägers rode on the running boards. When the party arrived at the barracks in Goslar
they were met by the adjutant, who himself was a recently mobilized civilian.
“Deputy commanding general? That is utter nonsense! Why don’t you just admit that
you are the Russian spy. Be prepared to be executed.”
“By thunder! Can’t you call Hannover? They are expecting me there at any moment.”
But when the call was put through to Hannover the answer was: “Deputy commanding
general? No, impossible, there is nobody like that. Just keep him locked up. Something is
wrong there.”
Protesting to no avail, the cell was locked behind the general and a guard with loaded
rifle was posted.
“Can’t you call Blankenburg? Everybody knows me there.”
After a number of hours another telephone call came from Hannover. There was a
deputy commanding general after all. “Oh my God! What have you people in Goslar
done?”
After a while a car pulled up in front of the guard shack with the mayor of
Blankenburg, a uniformed policeman, and the general’s daughter with his mobilization
order. All doubt was gone; they had locked up their own deputy commanding general.
How were they going to get out of this one?
The replacement battalion commander appeared in his service dress uniform, with the
adjutant right behind him. The guard at the confinement facility stood at present arms. The
key was turned in the lock, and salutes were rendered. Frosty silence. Without a word His
Excellency got into his car and drove off.
There was little else pleasant to report about the replacement battalion. Everything was
in the hands of overaged reserve officers who were full of energy and good intentions, but
lacking in the ability to lead and manage the daily duties and to keep control of the
organization. The incoming field troops were generally of low quality. The Oberjägers too
were overaged, but they were vastly superior in the performance of the daily duties to their
officers, and willing to use that to their advantage. The first indicators of an ugly
Feldwebelwirtschaft28 were emerging.
I saw my father frequently. He had been severely wounded in Poland at the head of his
brigade and was in a military hospital in Hannover. I started feeling the urge to get out
again. Strangely enough, I wanted to get to Russia. We also were providing replacements
for the 22nd Reserve Jäger Battalion in Poland. There I could take command of a
company. My battalion was in Lille and the situation in the West was at a complete
standstill. After some back and forth administrative haggling, I was off to Poland. The
vastness of the East. Russia. The Russian people. A new, foreign world was calling to me.
2
1915
On the Rawka River
On 1 February the troop train left Goslar. We were stuck on it for days. In Leszno, where
we sat for twenty-five hours, I had the waiting hall of the train station cleared and the floor
covered with straw to give the troops a chance to stretch out. In Rzepin I bought meat with
coupons. We already had been without rations for more than twenty-four hours. The
supply situation was a long way from its standard high state of professionalism.
We finally arrived in Skierniewice, where the 22nd Reserve Jäger Battalion was
resting. The unit had just changed commanders. The new commander was Major Hopfen,
a mounted Jäger from Trier. His strength was that he cared about the troops. If there was
anything lacking when it came to supplies, he would immediately rush off to division and
not hold back on his opinions: “The Uhlan Regiment that is currently resting and not
doing anything just received this or that. But my Jägers who have been in constant action
are not getting anything! Why not?”
The staff of the 5th Cavalry Division was actually intimidated by him, because of his
reckless support of his battalion. But we were not at that point yet. In February 1915 the
rations were excellent. When we were in the front lines in the trenches everybody received
an additional quarter pound of bacon as a so-called trench bonus, and the goods sent
through the postal system easily fed the troops for another few days. In the summer,
however, most of it spoiled… and later there was nothing left.
The XXV Reserve Corps, to which we were attached, was engaged in the quiet trench
war along the Rawka River. It was one of the so-called Kinderkorps, like the ones that had
to pay such a high and unnecessary blood toll at Ypres.1 The XXV Reserve Corps had
been sent east immediately and had more time to prepare and mature in easier fighting. It
had then been engaged in heavy fighting near Brzeziny and, in coordination with the 3rd
Guards Division, had broken up the Russian encirclement. The 22nd Reserve Jäger
Battalion had had a substantial role in that. During the night fighting in the forests our
reserve Jägers, war volunteers, short in stature and insufficiently trained, had overrun elite
Siberian regiments whose members were twice the size and had twice the physical
strength of our troops. We were all very proud of what they had accomplished.
In time, regular officers were assigned to the XXV Reserve Corps, and many of the
overaged old guard disappeared. My father too had been reassigned to that corps, and he
was severely wounded at the head of one of his brigades. He intended to fix the
weaknesses of his units through his personal example. Our Reserve Captain Rockstroh,
who was the commander of the 22nd Jägers at the time, accompanied my father as he was
trooping the line outside the trenches under heavy enemy fire. As he later told me, “I
finally jumped into the trench. I did not care if your father thought I was a coward. I could
not do it.” And Rockstroh was a courageous man, over fifty, a forester, who was not even
of mobilization age anymore. He had volunteered out of a sense of honor and national
pride. He never held back, although he continually let us all know that he hated war and
was disgusted by it. His exemplary courage and sense of duty were worthy of even greater
respect. Later that summer, when our attack failed during a heavy engagement, he never
took cover, saying, “It would be shameful to come out of this unwounded.” Shortly after,
he was severely wounded by a shot in the stomach. He received the Iron Cross 1st Class
for the breakthrough at Brzeziny, but he did not wear it. “I would be too ashamed in front
of my Jägers, who did the same that I did.” He was a unique person.
The corps commander, General of Infantry Reinhard von Scheffer-Boyadel, ordered me
to report to him and invited me to dinner. I sat across from him, to my left was his chief of
staff, Colonel von Massow, to my right the duke of Coburg.2 His Excellency3 von Scheffer
toasted me, and when I got up, he also rose and said, “One must rise in honor of a knight
of the Iron Cross 1st Class.” In October 1914, I had received one of the first one hundred
1st Class Iron Crosses awarded.
The war at that point was calm and unthreatening. We were occupying various
positions, mostly one to two kilometers away from the enemy. The only unpleasant place
was called the “Witches’ Caldron,” a bridgehead across the Rawka River sixty to one
hundred meters from the enemy that was constantly pounded with artillery fire.
Fortunately, the Russians considered firing at night as a waste of state property and a
punishable offense.
Although things were quiet during the day, a lively war between the trenches began at
night. The Russians used every trick in the book, including confusing us with German
speakers and conducting silent ambushes from the rear. It was not always easy to keep our
troops alert. They were innocently unsuspecting. I tried time and again to be in the right
place when incidents happened, and often was able to prevent the worst. We never lost a
prisoner to the Russians; on the other hand, we frequently captured one. You could only
shake your head whenever a scrawny war volunteer, who was nothing more than a child,
came back with a huge Siberian who was following him dumbfounded and most willingly.
But the prisoners were actually quite intelligent. Once, two Siberians were brought in. One
was an older NCO with eight years of service, the leader of a patrol. When questioned, he
stated that he was not allowed to say anything. Then all of a sudden he asked, “How much
do I get for everything I know? Is it true that I can get money for my rifle?” When asked
whether they received a bounty for bringing in a prisoner of war, he turned to a lieutenant
and said, “I would get 50 Rubles for you.” The other one was severely wounded. He spoke
German and French and was grateful for the good treatment. His superiors had told him
the Germans were animals.
Routinely one of the first questions we asked the prisoners was, “When will you start
your revolution?” Not one of them comprehended. They all were absolutely loyal to the
tsar. For us the question was motivated by the silent hope that our having to fight against
the overwhelming Russian masses would end: “Sooner or later they will have to have their
revolution.”
News of important events spread quickly. When Przemyśl fell, the Russians manned
their trenches and throughout the night they hollered, “Przemyśl is ours, Przemyśl is
ours!” The losses inflicted on them by our instant response with artillery fire were
probably not at all minor, but the Russians apparently did not care.
At the beginning of May our breakthrough offensive near Gorlice–Tarnow began. We
had anticipated it for weeks, and it was hard for us not to act like a bunch of children.
Toward the end of April 1915 we were sent to camp at the Warta River near Poznan. New
divisions consisting of three regiments were formed from units that had been detached
from the old divisions.4 We were integrated into the newly formed 103rd Division,
commanded by General Ludwig von Estorff, called “The Old Roman.” He was an
experienced veteran of the fighting in Southwest Africa.
In the Rear of Temesvar
On 27 May we departed the encampment near the Warta River. We passed through
Breslau5 and Oderberg among cheering citizens, but nobody knew where we were headed.
Austrian troop transports headed to Italy crossed our path. The soldiers appeared to be in
excellent condition. We speculated that we might be headed for the same destination. Near
Marchegg we turned toward the east, passing through Budapest and Szeged. The
Hungarians welcomed us with open arms. Their admiration for Germany was unlimited.
They expected the most incredible miracles from us. Once we got past Szeged the
direction would be obvious. If we turned left we would be heading into the Bukovina
region; if we turned right we were going to Serbia. Everybody betted on Bukovina, but we
turned right in the direction of Serbia.
Our first camp was in Antafalva, a large, clean, friendly Slovenian village. Then we
reached the first German settlements and we crossed the Temes River. We would have
done anything for our German brethren. In Titel on the Tisza River we were loaded into
boats. Four large freight barges tied together and pulled by a tug brought us down the
Tisza River and then up the Danube. As far as we could see everything was flooded. The
Danube seemed even more majestic than usual. On our left the hills of Fruska Gora were
covered with linden forests, easily recognizable by their aroma. It was an unforgettable
picture. We unloaded in Ilok. Our destination was Erdevik, a half-German village in
Syrmia. Anyone who ever heard of Syrmia knew about its industrious German population.
We were supposed to assemble and coordinate near the forward line that ran along the
Sava River and the Danube. It was deadly quiet at the front line. In Mitrovica, right in the
combat zone, life seemed rather peaceful. For two months not a single artillery round had
impacted. So far, the result of the campaign was a perfect stalemate. The Austrian
offensive had collapsed and the Czech regiments were blamed. The Serbs that had entered
Syrmia, however, had been encircled and destroyed.
The Serbs were supposed to be courageous and tough soldiers, especially in the
defense. The attack was not their favorite form of maneuver. Supposedly, they did not like
to fight in the open flatlands. In the mountains, however, they were invincible. Their
artillery apparently was an elite organization. The Serbian officers supposedly were well
educated and supported the political ideals of their country, personally courageous, and
always positioned at the most dangerous spot on the battlefield. The higher leadership,
too, was apparently very good and did not fail, even in critical situations. Clearly, this was
not what we had been expecting.
Movement to Indija (a small town thirty-five kilometers northwest of Belgrade) made it
possible for us to visit Belgrade, or rather to Semlin. The Austrian area commander,
General Phüllöps, had invited us. Looking across the river into Belgrade left a lasting
impression. We were able to observe life in the streets as if we were in the middle of
peacetime. Only the remnants of the railroad bridge over the Sava River and the two wellcamouflaged naval guns close by reminded us that we were still at war. It was hard to tear
ourselves away from those magical images. Naturally, we conducted plenty of training
while we were there. It was a different battalion that got on the train on 12 July, well
rested, well trained, and highly motivated. We had gotten along well with the local
population and the allied army. A new, bigger world had opened itself up to us, and we
were awed by the new things that we saw. But we also learned how to deal with it. It was a
maturing experience. A cosmopolitan upbringing was not the strength of the German
officer. When they were among themselves the Austrian officers referred to us with the
somewhat ironic phrase “Prussian Charm.”
Galicia
We were headed north via Budapest. Beyond Homona we saw the first signs of war:
trenches, shell craters, burned-out houses. The fields and the harvest had not suffered
much. Russian POWs were bringing in the harvest and were filling in the trenches. Galicia
is a beautiful region; some of it reminded me of Thuringia. The Polish villages, however,
all appeared impoverished. East of Przemyśl the flatlands started, interspersed by some
rising hills. The Russians had only really destroyed the railroad infrastructure there.
We off-loaded in Zimna Woda, and then marched through Lemberg,6 a city with
horribly paved roads, some beautiful palaces, and run-down and extremely dirty houses
with even dirtier occupants. We were rather disappointed by this area that was supposed to
be known as the “tsar’s missing crown jewel.” We did, however, agree with the Russian
general who had said as he was marching into Lemberg that he was looking forward to
this city of beautiful women. We did, indeed, see some rare beauties.
We marched toward the north and joined the Austrian Army. As soon as we reached
Ukrainian settlements the houses became cleaner and vermin-free. Near Sokal the
Russians attacked. Disregarding losses from forced marching, we were committed
forward. As the army operations order read: “. . . as long as the division can attack with
single artillery pieces and companies… .”
The roads were horrendously sluggish and muddy. The artillery had to replace their
horses frequently. Meanwhile, we pressed forward at a painfully slow pace toward the
increasingly louder sounds of battle. As we moved forward, we passed Austrian battalions
and batteries resting contentedly along the roads, which prompted some bitter catcalls.
Then we were halted in Moschov. Our help was no longer needed. The Silesian and
Moravian units of the Austrian Landwehr regiments had resisted successfully against
multiple attacks by five Russian divisions.
The 32nd Infantry Regiment from Meinigen was assigned to the 103rd Division and
one of its battalions had been attached to the 5th Cavalry Division for some time now.
Since the 5th Cavalry Division was located close to us, we replaced that battalion and now
became part of the 5th Cavalry Division.
On the Bug River
With our attachment to the 5th Cavalry Division we had hoped to be committed to more
mobile warfare, but were highly disappointed. The Falkenhayn-like strategy was to try to
roll up from the bottom the huge bulge in which the Russian troops were sitting, instead of
tying the knot and choking them from the top. We were able to push the enemy back,
inflicting heavy losses on him, but we also expended a lot of energy doing so. The fact
that the three divisions on alert near Belgrade had to be brought east and thrown into the
mayhem was not a sign that the Ninth Army leadership of the day was handling this
correctly. The troops were aware of this and discussed it to the last man, hoping that
Hindenburg and Ludendorff would be called to lead the army.7
The situation for us went back and forth along the Bug. Finally on 8 August we stood at
Studianka8 facing the Russians. From 1300 hours on things became deathly still in the
direction of the enemy lines. Some of the villages went up in flames, a clear sign of a
retreat. One of the patrols we sent out had not moved far enough forward, so I took them
out again myself. Up to Studianka it was possible for us to conduct a covered movement
through the high-standing grain fields. Then we reached a fifty-meter area without cover
directly in front of the Russian position. We could not tell if it was manned or empty. As I
advanced with my patrol on a broad front, a shot rang out and dirt kicked up in front of
me. I hit the ground with my rifle stock to my cheek, when just behind me a runner named
Brauner laughed out loud. He had accidentally pulled the trigger. It was a most
uncomfortable situation.
Nonetheless, the question whether the position was occupied or not was answered and
everything remained calm. But I could not resist. I continued on toward Vladimir–
Volynskyi with a handful of soldiers. We reached the edge of the town along with our
advance cavalry patrols. All the villages and the grain in the fields were burning. Smoke
obscured the landscape and the town of Vladimir was a sea of flames. On the high ground
beyond the town we could observe vehicle convoys of the inhabitants being escorted to
the rear by Cossacks. Through binoculars I could see how the Cossacks occasionally used
their Nagykas9 to beat the people, who tried to duck the blows.
Vladimir fell quickly, but what we found bore witness to the way the Cossacks had
terrorized the town. Nothing was left but burning embers. Before they left, the Cossack
commander had summoned the elder of the Jewish community and told him they had
orders to burn Vladimir down. He then asked how much the people would be willing to
pay to prevent the burning of the town. But after a large sum of money was paid, all the
women and girls were raped and the town was still burnt down.
From all the corners of the town we could hear the meek cheers of the liberated Jews.
They brought tobacco, food, and anything else for our troops. That was the only time I
experienced something like this. Even for the Russians this must have been an act of
brutality above the norm. “We will do anything for the Germans,” the townsfolk said, and
they really did. When we turned Vladimir into a bridgehead, the people dug trenches
voluntarily. After a short time, however, they resumed their old ways. Remembering that
they had always been tradesmen, they started overcharging us.
The days in Vladimir were idyllic. We lay in our trenches and the enemy was far away.
Only forward outposts were to our front. In the sector around us cavalry patrols from both
sides moved back and forth, shooting at each other. One had to be careful in the somewhat
obscure terrain. The Cossacks typically appeared with arrow speed and overran an
inattentive guard post or guard relief, creating havoc with their beautifully designed
Cossack sabers. Incidents occurred at night as well. Unexpected shooting from the
direction of the adjacent unit woke me up one night. Approximately one hundred meters in
front of me the Russians were shouting commands. As flares went up we saw four or five
Russian cavalrymen. Ten paces in front of our foxholes shots rang out, hitting right into
our midst. Horses reared as they turned around and collapsed, with their riders dropping.
One of them was lying in the grass, quietly moaning, but when I reached him with our
medic he was already dead. We had been hit by the Russian 3rd Uhlans. The next evening
a Russian cavalryman came from the rear with his hands in the air. He had been the leader
of the patrol. He had passed through our lines hanging onto the side of his horse, but then
the horse was killed. He did not know anything about the whereabouts of the rest of his
patrol.
Slowly the Russians moved back, and we followed. On 21 August we were near
Rastow, in front of the Turja River. A Russian cavalry regiment rode off toward their own
rear under our artillery fire. They withdrew expertly, keeping their losses to a minimum.
A large plain with no cover stretched all the way to the Turja. The Russian positions
were on the other side of the small river. With dismounted cavalry and Austrian troops on
our flanks, we attacked at noon on 22 August, supported by the fires of our three mounted
batteries. As we were moving forward four artillery rounds exploded in front of us, tearing
apart the leaders on my left and right. The Russians knew exactly where our officers were
positioned. “Forward, Move! Move!” the officers yelled as we covered more ground.
“Drop! Up! Move!” We inched toward the enemy. The soldiers followed the commands
just like on the parade ground. But it was horrible whenever the rounds exploded in our
midst. Since we were taking the most losses when we had dropped to the ground, and we
were only taking artillery fire, I ordered the troops to rush ahead individually. The leading
rifleman would dig for cover, then jump forward and the others would follow.
The Russian artillery fire became more sporadic and our losses decreased, but now we
were within the range of the enemy infantry. We were hit hard from the left flank. We
brought up two machine guns from the rear and put them into position on a small hill,
from which they engaged the enemy on our flank. That helped. We moved forward faster.
Four hundred meters away from the enemy we dug ourselves in. The adjacent units were
far behind us. We had managed to advance more than a thousand meters into the
uncovered terrain that descended toward the enemy. Night fell and it became chillingly
cold. The next morning the enemy was gone.
We followed toward Kovel, which we reached the following evening. Three cavalry
divisions were alerted for the night attack. Two of them were Austrian, but they did not
participate. So in the end, only we, the Jägers, and the riflemen of the Hussar Brigade
actually attacked. I was the commander of the reserve company. Ahead of us we heard the
shouts and the firing and saw the burning houses. I was ordered to take a cluster of
buildings that loomed in the dark. We took the objective and preempted a counterattack in
the process. The next morning the enemy had disappeared. The estate had some good
Crimean wine and sparkling wine, and we also had stormed a still intact bordello. The
company was almost impossible to control that night.
We were now diverted to the north to cut off the retreating Russians from BrestLitovsk, a hopeless undertaking. If you turn the sack inside out, you cannot tie it off at the
top. The Falkenhayn-like strategy ended up having repercussions down to the lowest
levels. We ran into the Russian rear guard and defeated them in a tough fight in a forest. I
was hit in the back by a ricochet and collapsed with the dysentery that I had been suffering
from for days. Along with a wounded Hussar officer I was hauled off in a cart driven by a
Jäger. An ambulance was supposed to be waiting in Ratno. It really was there, but it had
an empty gas tank. On we went toward Makary. Masses of refugees with mixed-in
turncoats were streaming out of the forests and marshes, returning to the villages that they
had been chased out of. There was nothing in Makary, so we went on to Malorita. Finally
we arrived at a field hospital after three lonely days on the road. We were nicely received
and then we were sent onward to Wlodawa in a mail truck.
A dysentery hospital is not a happy place, especially when it is located in crumbling,
former Russian barracks that were built before hygiene had been invented. Even white
linens and self-sacrificing care could not change that. My roommate was an officer in the
Polish Legion,10 so at least we had some interesting conversations. After ten days I had
had enough. I was almost back to normal anyway, so I headed back to the front. After
three days I reached my unit.
The 22nd Jägers had suffered heavy losses during a failed attack on a Russian rear
guard position on 29 August 1915. The attack broke down only a few paces in front of the
enemy. My company had lost sixty men. Among the fallen was a young protestant pastor,
Franz Tongers, an East Frisian war volunteer from the town of Norden. His father was a
teacher there. The man had been a true Christian. He helped his comrades whenever he
could. He dug positions for them; he went on guard duty for them; he carried their field
packs when they did not feel well. His worship services were always packed, even though
I never ordered anyone to go. He spoke at the graves of our fallen comrades, gave advice
in family and relationship questions, and took care of the soldiers’ correspondence. He
was an upstanding man who never hesitated to come to me and tell me what was right or
wrong, or what should be done differently. Where he found the time and the energy to do
all of this was a mystery to me. He turned down the opportunity to attend a reserve officer
candidate course. He felt that as an officer he would not be able to do justice to his
spiritual mission. When the Jägers got ready to storm the enemy positions, he was the first
one to jump up and shout, “Let’s go, they are escaping!” Those were his last words. Then
he was hit by the bullet that killed him. In general, the pastoral service in the field was not
well respected. But this man had been unique. You could not have found a better role
model.
In the Rokitno Marshes
We pressed forward into the Rokitno Marshes, a sandy, swampy area the size of Lower
Saxony and Westphalia together. The marshes were covered by alder trees and pine forests
and were speckled with smaller and larger clearings. During the summer everything was
dry and accessible. But when the snow was melting in the spring, it all turned into one big
lake. The only features that stuck out were the roads and a few hills fifteen to twenty
kilometers apart that the villages were built on. During the summers the villagers herded
their animals into the forests and the clearings, and in the winter they withdrew to the
villages. The cattle and the horses were small and tough. The pigs looked like their wild
boar cousins.
The dark and foreboding villages were constructed from wood, using no nails. Only a
wooden church with a green roof and a golden dome gave the whole image a little bit of
color. Wooden crosses three meters high marked the cemeteries. Whatever the people
needed they manufactured themselves, from earthen housewares to fur coats and brown
shirts. Shoes were unknown to them; instead they wore sandals made out of birch bark.
Only their knives and axes were made out of metal, which they used very expertly to cut
and shape timber. There was very little farming going on, but a lot of beekeeping.
The land was dotted with estate manors. While the farmers were Belorussians, the
owners of the estates were Polish nobility, who often were married to ladies-in-waiting of
the Viennese court. Wolves, bears, elk, wild boar, and deer lived in the forests. As two of
my Upper Silesian Jägers were moving forward through the forest one night, something
big and dark suddenly moved in front of them. One of them yelled, “The devil, the devil!”
and fell to his knees and started praying. The other one shot and dropped a huge elk. Many
years later when I saw the Everglades in Florida, I was reminded strongly of the Rokitno
Marshes.
We pressed forward into this terrain. At first only German and Austrian cavalry faced
the Russian cavalry, mainly their 3rd Cavalry Division and 3rd Caucasus’s Cavalry
Division. They were excellent troops, brilliant fighters on foot as well as on horseback,
and masters of the skirmish. We nicknamed their leader “Mad Arthur.” We were dealing
with the commanding general of the Russian Cavalry Corps, General von Güllenschmidt,
who had made a name for himself operating behind Japanese lines during the RussoJapanese War.
We were supposed to throw the Russians back behind the extensive north-south
railroad line between Wilna and Kowno. Its loss would split the Russian armies in two,
plus we would gain access to the line. The fighting was most peculiar. My company was
attached to the 11th Cavalry Brigade. We fought in open forests with no other units close
by. We could hear by the firing that they were somewhere. The enemy to our front were
Cherkes11 in long, black coats and tall black sheepskin caps, who would fire and
disappear. If we followed we would run into well-placed machine guns firing into our
flanks. At the same time we could hear the cheering of mounted and dismounted Cherkes
and Cossacks. Our losses were small, but one really had to pay attention. As soon as we
started receiving fire from the front, we instantly covered our rear with fire. That handled
most situations. Once I was positioned with a squadron of the 8th Dragoons in a high
forest. The Russians were storming at us from all directions. A giant Cossack came
slashing into the infantry soldiers with his Nagyka, until he was shot. At the same time
Cherkes attacked the mounted artillery battery to our rear, which shifted their trails and
broke up the attack. The marsh that the Cherkes had crossed had been considered
unpassable by us.
Often I found myself in an isolated position with my company, nobody to the left or
right or rear. For a young officer it was excellent schooling and I was proud that we
accomplished every task. The company received an unusual measure of recognition. The
fighting intensified as we brought up our infantry. Unfortunately, they were not used to
this kind of fighting and not up to it. We dug ourselves in, forming a circle around
Sheliesniza. For the first time in weeks my company was actually living under roofs and
finally in the reserve. I even had time to read my Shakespeare. Then suddenly shooting
and yelling broke out, as our infantry started falling back: “The Russians, we are
encircled!”
I had a hard time organizing my people and getting them into position. We halted the
withdrawing infantry soldiers in place.
“But our lieutenant told us to fall back.”
“Well, ours told us to keep you right here.”
With those words two Jägers knocked an infantry NCO flat. Directly behind us in
Sheliesniza all hell broke loose, with artillery fire, burning houses, and yelling. To our
front the advancing Russians were clearly silhouetted against the burning buildings. I was
moving back and forth behind the firing line. Quite a few of our troops who were on the
verge of losing their nerve had to be snapped back into focus with a kick of the rifle butt.
As ordered, I withdrew toward Sheliesniza, and no enemy followed. At the edge of the
village a mixed bunch of cuirassiers, dragoons, and infantry soldiers was standing around.
Half the village had been taken by the Russians.
My company had not suffered any losses, but my copy of Shakespeare was taken by the
Russians. At three in the morning we were moved back to Lubaczow, where we slept like
the dead. The infantry, meanwhile, had counterattacked and retaken Sheliesniza. One of
Crazy Arthur’s runners fell into our hands. He just rode over to our lines. By the time it
was over our total losses, missing, killed and wounded, came to approximately one
hundred men and two machine guns.
The fighting flared up again around Kuchozka Wolja. Together with two infantry
companies, my Jäger company was cobbled into a combined battalion and attached to the
Hungarian 11th Honvéd12 Cavalry Division. Flanked by Hungarians in dense forest, my
company prepared to attack. The fusilier battalion to our right was commanded by the
marvelous Hungarian Captain Gömörry. We completely surprised the Russians, speedily
overrunning their positions and capturing three machine guns. We pursued them for three
kilometers through the forest. We surprised and annihilated one company clustered around
their field mess. In the hands of our Upper Silesians the entrenching tool became a battle
axe. Again the Cossacks slashed into the retreating Russian infantry with their Nagykas,
but were not able to stop them.
Then crisis struck. The wild chase had created chaos among all the units. Our infantry
was not trained well for forest fighting. The Hungarian hussars were hit by a counterattack
and fell back. Then we were hit by a counterattack from a Cherkes brigade. They charged
toward us on foot like devils, brandishing their curved sabers, stopping to fire, and then
charging on. Some of them carried lances. After a few minutes their deadly courageous
attack stalled, broken up by the Hungarian artillery. But all efforts to rally the Hungarian
hussars to move forward again failed, and we ended up falling back with the fusiliers to
our initial positions. Actually, I had to make that decision myself. The Hungarians
suddenly disappeared without notifying us.
After it was all over my company returned to the 22nd Jäger Battalion. It had been an
exhausting time. It was very rare for a single company to be left to its own devices to
operate for weeks. We received plenty of recognition. I was especially proud of the fact
that my company did not have a single unaccounted soldier, and our overall losses were
relatively low. A close-knit company welded together for life or death returned to its
battalion.
Partisan War
The alliances were falling apart. Our forward posts were positioned along the Weslucha
River. Whenever you stepped into the cold autumn night you could hear the wolves
howling. My company was positioned behind the forward observation posts, again
attached to the 11th Cavalry Brigade, which consisted of the Life Guard Cuirassiers and
the 8th Dragoons. We had developed a great relationship with the regiments of the 5th
Cavalry Division. They were all first rate. They had learned how to fight on foot and the
excellent officers and soldiers always did what was necessary.
Two of the regiments stuck out in particular. The 10th Uhlans, superbly led by Count
Bredow, and the Life Guard Cuirassiers, possibly Prussia’s best regiment. Relations
between the officers and enlisted soldiers in both units were excellent. If they came from
the same region and had shared their youth together, they naturally remained on a firstname basis. The officers were to the last courageous and prudent. They accomplished
everything with great calm. Everyone was consistently friendly and polite. The Life Guard
Cuirassier Regiment was the standard for Prussian gentlemanly behavior and culture.
Even the revolution did not affect them. The regiment stood together as a bulwark in the
defense of Silesia against Polish insurgents.13
Back in Kuchozka Wolja, meanwhile, we busily improved our positions and collected
winter supplies. We found numerous mass graves where the Russians had buried their
dead from the previous fighting. The numbers of dead among the Russians could not be
compared to our losses. Twenty-to-one was hardly accurate. Our designated quarters were
in the large twin village of Kuchozka Wolja. A wide-open area separated the two parts. My
company was positioned in the northern part. When the guard post woke me up at 0400 on
the morning of 3 November telling me that South Kuchozka was burning, I thought
perhaps one house might be on fire because of stored ammunition. But then artillery
rounds started falling and hand grenades exploded. A few bullets whizzed by us. Then the
brigade command post called: “The Russians are in the village. Send in everybody you
can spare!”
I sent one officer with four squads, thinking that this would be a small patrol type of
engagement, and I went back to my cup of coffee. Then the next phone call came: “Send
all physicians and medical personnel.” A man in a German uniform was picked up. He
could only speak Polish and had been observed leaving town in the direction of the enemy.
He turned out to be a totally disoriented labor reinforcement. One of his comrades wearing
only a shirt and a bayonet stab wound in his butt was found five kilometers away by the
cuirassier regiment in Pavlinov.
What had happened? South Kuchozka was built partly on a hill and partly into a valley.
Our positions and wire obstacles followed the crest line. The troops were all positioned
behind the wire obstacles. Only a labor reinforcement company had been positioned
outside of the wire, secured by two guard posts. The unit had arrived later and nobody
wanted to move them. We thought nothing would happen to them anyway. The
townspeople had been issued black and white identifying armbands and were also working
on the positions. Typically, the Russians had spies among the locals and knew everything
about us. On the night of 3 November they were ready to strike. Several hundred Russians
led by local guides with the black and white armbands split up as they reached the front of
the village. One column entered the labor reinforcement camp. Stabbing everybody with
bayonets, they cut through the wire obstacles and entered the town. Another column
reached the artillery position, which fortunately had been repositioned the night before.
From there they moved into the town, silently stabbing artillery and machine gun crews in
their billets. Led by the locals wearing the black and white armbands, the Russians moved
toward the officers’ quarters and tossed in hand grenades. Other Russians went into the
barns, cut down the guards, and set the barns on fire. The wounded were thrown into the
flames. When we started to establish a resistance and formed a hasty counterattack, they
broke off their attack with a whistle command, leaving behind six of their own dead and
one seriously wounded. Our losses were around one hundred, fifty of them dead. Many of
the wounded, who later died, had suffered five or six bayonet stabs. Seventy-five horses
had burned to death. This brilliant surprise attack was conducted by the Russian Uhlan
Guards.
In place of the labor reinforcements we received an infantry company. They arrived all
excited, went into position, and then shot up a mounted guard detachment, who they
thought were Russians. Higher headquarters quickly purged both the guilty and the
innocent in this incident, but that could not bring the dead back.
The 5th Cavalry Division switched positions with an infantry division and ended up in
the area south of Pinsk. We also changed commanders. In place of Major Hopfen the 22nd
Jäger Battalion was taken over by Count Gilbert Hamilton,14 a former Swedish Guard
cavalry officer who had joined the German Army at the beginning of the war and who
then served in the Life Guard Cuirassier Regiment. We were very fortunate with this
nobleman as our commander. He had volunteered to serve the German cause out of a deep
sense of conviction. He remained a faithful, paternal friend to me to the end of his life. He
also remained loyal to the Kaiser, even serving as one of his adjutants in exile. I owe him
much.
In the meantime, the Russians continued their partisan warfare, raiding the
headquarters of the adjacent division, which had taken up positions in the village of
Newel. The Russians knew this well through their organized intelligence gathering system
and our inefficiency. Singing German songs, they entered Newel from the rear, beat
twelve officers and more than one hundred men to death, and then disappeared with the
divisional commander and the military chaplain. They had not dared to kill the latter
because of the cross on his chest.
Now we started forming Jagdkommandos.15 I was given one that was assigned to my
company from the 5th Cavalry Division. It was formed on 7 December 1915, consisting of
four officers and 130 soldiers. Many of the soldiers were from Upper Silesia. They were
mostly first-rate people from the various cavalry regiments, but a few of them were the
types the parent unit hoped it would never see again. My unit, however, had many who
were particularly good, reliable, and courageous. I still remember some of them.
Wachtmeister16 Reiss of the Life Guard Cuirassier Regiment was from the German
colonies in southwestern Africa. He was calm, collected, and honest. From the same
regiment I had a Dutchman who had volunteered to fight with us. During World War II he
wrote to me that his son was fighting in Africa under Rommel. And there was Sergeant
Gralke from the 8th Dragoon Regiment, a typical Upper Silesian. He was faithful like a
dog and had the natural instincts of an outdoorsman. He could smell the enemy. When he
said that there is someone sitting behind a bush, it was true. As a point man on patrols he
was untouchable.
Toward Pinsk there was a huge marshland, approximately ten to twenty kilometers
wide and deep. Right in the middle there was a sand dune with a strong Russian outpost,
which we estimated at company strength. We reconnoitered the situation forward of Pinsk
without any local guides. I occupied a point four hundred meters behind the Russian
position and observed them for days, with the never tiring Sergeant Reiss beside me. We
learned every detail of the setup of their obstacles and dugouts, the placement and strength
of their guard posts, and the timing of their shift changes. We also determined that they
sent out their listening posts much too late in the evenings. For this raid I still had the
Jagdkommando of the Guard Cavalry Division attached to me. I set out on 28 December
with eight officers and two hundred soldiers. In the high reeds wading through knee-deep,
ice-cold water I moved during the day as close as four hundred meters to the unsuspecting
Russians. I left the Jagdkommando of the Guard Cavalry Division there and continued in
the light of dusk with my own troops across the Russian line before they had it secured.
Once we were behind the Russian lines we swung wide and turned toward our
objective… and then all of a sudden we did not know where we were anymore. It was a
horrible moment. I stopped all movement and tried to get oriented. I sent out a patrol into
the most likely correct direction. After long minutes of fearful waiting Lieutenant
Eberding returned and got us reoriented. He had spotted a Russian cutting wood out in
front of his dugout.
Now everything went very fast. We answered the challenge of a Russian guard post in
Russian. The man was very close to me, but Sergeant Gralke brought him down with a
bayonet thrust to the neck. When we entered the enemy position they could not reach their
rifles, which had been racked outside their dugouts. They threw hand grenades at us, and
we in turn cleared the dugouts with hand grenades. It was a horrific job. A Russian
emerged from one dugout with both his hands gone and the skin ripped off of the right
side of his face. Horribly mutilated bodies were piled high in the dugouts. We pulled
sixteen prisoners out of two of the dugouts. The other Jagdkommando, meanwhile, had
charged ahead on my light signal and had entered the position at the same time.
Unfortunately, there was a little chaos in the process. One huge dragoon guard cut into one
of my people with his bayonet. Luckily the thrust hit the ammunition pouch and my
soldier remained uninjured.
Peoples are different. The Russians conducting such an operation would not have made
a single sound, and everybody would have listened to his superior. On our side the
situation became quite frenzied. Once the fighting was over we started our withdrawal
with the prisoners and our dead and wounded. We were guided by a telephone wire that
we had laid for that purpose. By 0130 hours we were back in our positions. The surgeon,
medical personnel, and vehicles were waiting for us.
Several days later I led another surprise raid of the village of Gorowachia. We had
crossed the barely frozen Struma River and were already in the rear of the Russian lines
when we were discovered. Reluctantly, and without having accomplished much, I had to
give the order to retreat. The days of the Jagdkommandos were numbered. In a divisional
zone of operations there might be one or two objectives worth a surprise raid. Anything
beyond that is a waste of effort. Realizing this to be the situation in our sector, I requested
the disbandment of the Jagdkommando. My request was approved. I returned to my own
battalion and took over the command of the newly formed machine gun company.
3
1916
The Dead Front
Things became deadly quiet. Wire obstacles and improved positions had put an end to the
search and destroy [Jagdkommando] raids on both sides. Our priorities now became the
further improving of our positions and logistics. We collected mushrooms, planted
vegetables, and raised chickens to provide the machine gun crews with a nice daily dietary
supplement. The battalion tasked me with establishing a mess hall. I took an unorthodox
approach to that task as well. I drove to Warsaw, where I enjoyed the Russian emperor’s
ballet dancers, saw Puccini’s Tosca in Polish, and developed economic ties with a Jewish
businessman who superbly delivered supplies on time to the new mess hall. The mess hall
received a lot of attention. Our new division commander, General Eberhard von Hofacker,
who was involved in every detail of daily operations, sent his logistics officer on several
occasions to learn what I was doing next. Unfortunately, I could not possibly tell him
about my Jewish connection, which was strictly prohibited.
I spent part of my leave with my father and his staff. He was now in command of a
division on the western front. Other than that, there was not much going on. We were
happily sitting in a bar in Pinsk, enjoying life, when we got the news of a Russian Army
dispatch reporting the occupation of Pinsk and our complete annihilation. The evening
became very festive at that point. That was about the only thing worth reporting that
summer.
My old battalion, the 10th Jägers, had been fighting near Verdun and was then
transferred to Romania. At that point there was no holding me back. I used every means
available to get back to my parent unit. The farewell was not easy. I had become very
attached to my troops. My fatherly friend, Count Hamilton, did not want to release me, but
he understood.
To Romania
In Pinsk I shipped off my bag to Sibiu [Hermannstadt], Transylvania. Amazingly enough,
it actually arrived there. Then I started my trip. The Hungarian railroad system was
challenging. Designed to handle light traffic only, with single tracks throughout, curves
that were too tight, and grades that were too steep, the system would break down under the
slightest strain. That was compounded by the inability of the Hungarians to manage
anything, and their efforts to reroute freight cars with valuable loads to destinations other
than those planned. When called on it, they suddenly could not understand any German. I
was a train commander through Hungary seven times, and each experience was incredible.
One time a train loaded with horses was on a siding next to ours in Braşov [Kronstadt]. I
invited that train commander to my car. “No, thanks, I am not leaving my car,” was his
response. “It has been uncoupled four times already, with my luggage disappearing every
time I get off. I’ve learned.”
The next morning I heard some horrific swearing near the station. There he stood with
his passenger car, sitting all alone. All of his horses were gone and nobody knew where
they were. “ ‘Nem tudom,’ no German, only Hungarian,” was the only response he got.1
Finally I arrived in Caineni. I found the staff of the Alpenkorps and a few days later my
battalion. They had bivouacked fifty-two times, mostly above the tree line. I hardly knew
anyone anymore. Four times in and out at Verdun had taken a toll. Our old commander,
Major von Rauch, was gone, and Kirchheim was the commander now. He remained with
us until the end of the war. He was the best commander I had during the war. His
instinctive tactical sixth sense was unique. Only once did an attack that he had ordered
fail, and it was a situation where he could not have influenced the outcome. Despite all his
personal courage and bravado, he had a failsafe sense for limits that could not be crossed
unpunished. Details and minutiae did not interest him. Officers and enlisted alike followed
him unhesitatingly. It was a pleasure to serve under him.
Into Wallachia
The major mission in Romania had been accomplished. The battalion had fought at the
decisive point, at the Turnu Roşu Pass, and the strength of the Romanians had been
broken. This time the “Romanian sack” had to be turned inside out. A choking-off
operation along the line Braşov [Kronstadt]–Brăila was what was required at the
operational level, but the terrain difficulties made such a maneuver prohibitive. So, as he
would later do again in 1918, Ludendorff correctly decided to let tactical considerations
take priority over operational ones.
I took over the machine gun company, which until recently had been led by my old
officer candidate school commander, Senior Lieutenant Kreysing. He had been seriously
wounded and it was not easy to be his successor. Once during a critical moment when I
jumped in to replace a gunner who had been hit, one of the Jägers pulled me back and
said, “This is our business. You are just like First Lieutenant Kreysing. We do not want to
lose all of our officers.” Such recognition felt good.
All of the fighting now turned into pursuit actions. Again and again the Romanian
leadership cobbled together units by collecting up displaced troops and throwing them at
us. It hardly ever took more than a few days, sometimes only hours, and the freshly
reassembled enemy was dispersed again. One time I was crossing through the mountains
with all of the battalion’s pack animals—just my company and approximately seven
hundred animals, separated from the battalion. We were heading toward a village where
the main body of the battalion was also heading. It was already after nightfall. Shortly
before we reached the objective we started taking fire from a Romanian position. I
deployed my machine guns, pulled together half of the pack animal guides, turned them
into riflemen, and attacked. Everything was going well when from our rear a trampling
started. It became more and more intense and ended with seven hundred horses rushing in
wild panic through us and into the enemy. Instinctively everybody stormed forward. The
enemy, who must have assumed that the devil himself was coming for him, ran off. We
spent the night in the forest in the wet, melting snow hunting for our horses. Except for
maybe three or four, we managed to collect them all by the next morning as it was turning
light. We had not suffered any human losses either. Another time we marched through the
burning oil fields at Ploesti. Everything was black with soot. That day stayed in our
memories for a long time as the “March of the Moors.”
The pursuit continued through daily fighting on the southern slopes of the
Transylvanian Alps. We were quartered in rich villages with nice homes, but our intense
pursuits into the mountains took us through deep snow. For days on end we had to drag
the heavy machine gun equipment up and down the mountains—then we had to bivouac in
the snow. Our faithful pack animals hauled everything for us. The only trouble we had was
with the pack animal that carried the liquor ration. He had the bad habit of losing his
footing and dumping his load down the mountain, until the highly upset troops had a
serious talk with the animal’s guide.
We were greeted with loud cheers and applause whenever the local population
recognized us as Germans. When they mistook us for Russians, they admonished us with
very vivid gestures to be sure that we cut all the Germans’ throats.
Newly arriving Russian troops could not turn the tide in Romania, and were beaten
back. At Christmas we were sitting in deep snow, without a roof over our heads.
Everywhere small Christmas trees appeared miraculously. In the starlit nights we could
see the mountain silhouettes. On the slopes and in the valleys we could see hundreds of
campfires and could hear Christmas carols everywhere. Along the Putna River,
meanwhile, we started transitioning to trench warfare.
The serious crisis in the German Army leadership had been overcome by Hindenburg
and Ludendorff. With their appointments to head OHL a collective sigh of relief ran from
the front lines to the home front. Falkenhayn had never reached for the stars, and on
several occasions he had not taken advantage of favorable situations on the eastern front. I
am thinking primarily of the situation in December 1914 when the Russian armies had
their right flank near Łódź and their back against East and West Prussia. Then there was
the formation of the so-called “Children’s Corps” and its deployment to Ypres at a
strategically critical point; the approach to our offensive in Russia in 1915; Verdun; and
the rift between the Austrians and us. These were all low points of our conduct of war.
I met Falkenhayn once when I was an officer candidate. He ate at our mess hall in
Goslar. Because he had been a lieutenant together with my father, he asked me to join him.
His sparkling eyes, his youthful attitude, and his friendly personality made a deep
impression on me. I felt that I had been in the presence of a very important personality.
That he was indeed a great soldier was evident by his superb leadership in Romania. He
also proved that he was a great human being when he stepped down from the position as
chief of the General Staff to take command of a field army. It was an example of serving
his king selflessly. It is one of the peculiarities of military service that one can fulfill his
duties extremely well in one position, and then fail at the next higher position, or vice
versa.2
Nothing was going on militarily in the trench war on the Putna River. Both sides had
reached the end of their strength. One could, however, find logistical challenges to deal
with. I established a simple delousing and bathing facility. Initially, it was viewed
somewhat critically because I had pulled troops away from digging fighting positions, but
eventually the initiative was accepted enthusiastically. That was progress. Even at the
beginning of 1915 the presence of lice was still handled in some units with punishment
drills. Better methods were developed only after the lice remained unresponsive.
I also initiated the cooking of meals far forward for the machine gun crews in their
positions, providing them with hot food at regular times, and not only at night. We also
tried to improve the troops’ living conditions. The huge wine supplies stored in all of the
farmhouses were very difficult to manage and dispense, but that did not hurt our troops.
We were positioned very close to the Austrian 2nd Mountain Brigade, which was in sad
shape. In 1915 our allies were still in a victorious mood after the end of the successful
offensive against the Russians. The Austro-Hungarians had marched to Italy with high
morale, hoping to be able to end the war there quickly. Their mood turned sour after the
debacle at Luck and the aborted offensive in Italy. They replaced their officers constantly
and the constant refrain we heard was: “We do not know why we are fighting this war. It is
only for Germany anyway.” All the Austro-Hungarian nationalities were represented in
their officer corps, but attitudes diverged widely and often clashed. We were horrified to
hear the continual mutterings such as: “Better an end with terror than this terror without an
end.”
We were horrified as well by things we saw. When we were stationed in Jarestea
together with all of the supply units, one of their supply units had been in bivouac for
three or four weeks behind one of mine. Every night their soldiers sat around the fires and
got drunk until they just passed out. The officers, on the other hand, established a mess,
where they were fed cooked meat twice a day. They had pastries, candy, cigarettes, and
every night plenty of women.
Meanwhile, their soldiers were running around hungry and in rags. Almost daily one of
them came into my area asking for bread. I saw Bosnian soldiers of the 8th Field Jäger
Battalion picking up corn kernels off the road that washed up in the thaw. I thought they
were collecting them for the horses, but one of them who spoke a little German explained
that they were making their Polenta3 with what they managed to scrounge. Naturally the
Austro-Hungarian officers did not like to see how we fed our soldiers, how the relations
between German officers and enlisted were, how we set up our quarters, and how our
uniforms were well maintained.
“Does a state like the Austrian monarchy still have the right to exist?” we asked
ourselves even then. Everything simply depended on good will and good organization. If
you went to Budapest or anywhere else in Hungary you hardly could find any real
restrictions, even though they were officially using food ration cards.
We did have our own abuses that were the signs of a long war. There was pillaging and
a number of rapes. Bordellos were established only very late. Wherever that had been
done early on, no problems existed. As St. Augustine wrote a long time ago, “Whoever
chases the whores out of town drives everything into a morass of passion.”
There were very few problems with the population. They were used to bending
opportunistically through their experience of long Turkish oppression. Asian and
European habits were interlaced. It was most peculiar to see a Romanian dressed in the
latest European fashion all of a sudden sink to his knees and kiss your hemline, because he
wanted something. Young Romanians frequently tried to pass through our lines to reach
the newly forming Romanian Army behind the Russian lines near the Moldova River.
Posters were plastered everywhere prohibiting such activity. The threatened penalty for
such activity was summary execution. Our 2nd Company picked up a number of young
Romanians, and our regimental commander ordered their execution. The company
commander, Senior Reserve Lieutenant Nottbohm, reported back in writing that he would
not follow the order, citing from the pertinent paragraph from the military criminal code
that to do so would be a war crime. The regiment then obtained a war tribunal legal
opinion that was read to us. The bottom line was that the order was not illegal and would
have to be executed. The cited paragraph from the criminal code applied only to criminal
acts that were easily recognized as such. The order was executed, but the episode was
indicative of the libertarian spirit in the Old Prussian Army. One openly stated his opinion,
the differences were clarified, and there was no retribution in any form.
Other than that, our time in Romania was uneventful. In Focşani I looked for the old
castle of the Teutonic Order whose architecture and layout had very much interested me
when I was a student in Thorn. But I could not find a trace of it. King Andrew I of
Hungary had sent the knights there. The town itself had nothing of interest. Bucharest
reminded me of a bad denture with a few gold fillings. The architecture of the farmhouses
in the rural areas was interesting, though. European and Middle Eastern influences came
together in an interesting mix. The overall impression, however, was one of a nouveau
riche culture without real taste. A look at a castle and a farmhouse gave a true impression
of the social tensions in the country. Free, well-to-do, and self-confident farmers dwelled
only in the mountains, where there were no large estate holders.
An important political event about this time was the Peace Resolution passed by the
German Reichstag. The initiative was completely rejected, and not only by the officer
corps. The Reichstag no longer had anyone’s respect anyway.
4
1917
Between Battles
On 12 April I returned from my leave. I had planned to transfer in Rudka for Budapest,
but the connecting train was not running. The station master told me that there was a very
nice train waiting on the other track which was going not to Budapest but to Košice.1
From there it would be easy to get to Budapest. Along the way I could enjoy the views of
the High Tatras, and see Košice, a very nice place. So, I thought, why not?
On the train I made friends with an Austrian captain. That evening we ate dinner in
Košice. Hungary did not seem to have any food rationing. While Germans were going
hungry2 fighting to support the dual monarchy,3 people here did not lack anything. Even
so, they were still complaining about the war and how hard it was for them. My new
friend was the same. In 1916 at the breakthrough at Lutsk he had commanded a company.
He was its only survivor. All of his company’s dugouts had sunk into the marshes and his
troops suffocated. How he avoided suffocation, he did not say. But the bottom line of his
wartime experiences was, “As soon as you hear the enemy’s drums, leave, otherwise
something bad will happen.” He talked at great length about how he managed to make his
life comfortable in the field. He was typical of the non-German Austro-Hungarian,
pleasant, well educated, and able to converse intelligently about anything—as long as
there was no danger.
Whenever I passed through Budapest I never missed the chance to go sightseeing in
this uniquely beautiful city. From there I went on to Transylvania4 and the Pedreal Pass5
toward Focşani. Countless fortified churches sat on either side of the rail line. Each was
unique, just as the builders had conformed it to the terrain for protection against the Turks.
Mediaş6 was an old, very German town with towers and battlements. Sighişoara7 was
situated high on a green hill, with an old massive church without a steeple and the old
town in a circle around it. The steep, red roofs of the many fortification towers stuck out
of the green fields like spearheads. On a plateau below, the new town had been built
during a period later than the defiant old church. In its simple elegance the narrow tower
of the city hall was somewhat crooked. None of us were really familiar with the old
German culture of Transylvania. The war had brought this beautiful German land and the
ties that bind back to life.
The only thing foreign in this land was the Hungarian signs—signs in German and
Romanian were forbidden. The huge Transylvanian Alps were visible on the horizon. The
ruins of an old castle that had belonged to the Teutonic Order bore witness to a littleknown chapter in German history, when the Teutonic Knights had turned this area into a
German land. After the Order was forced to withdraw in disgrace, they moved to Prussia.
The valley leads into German castle country. At Kronstadt8 a valley opens up to the
south, ending with a wall of mountains sloping toward Romania. This was favorable
ground for an attacker coming from the south, but very bad ground for an attacker
approaching from the north. Ludendorff had been right in not wanting to attempt a
decisive attack here. Understanding the terrain along the border between Transylvania and
Romania, you have to judge less harshly the initial withdrawal of Germany’s allies. The
Romanians held every piece of high ground that descended from two thousand meters
down to six hundred meters within ten kilometers. Withdrawal from such an untenable
position was probably the best course of action.
Training Period
My unit picked me up in Focşani and we proceeded to Alvinc9 in Transylvania.
This was the period when America declared war. As I wrote in my diary: “What is
symptomatic of the importance of this event is the fact that nobody is talking about it.” I
actually found out about it by accident a few days after the fact. Many considered it a
ridiculous trifle that no one needed to be concerned about. Nobody had an inkling of the
potential this giant had. Our thinking was purely Continental.
Alvinc was an ethnic Romanian town full of hostile citizens. They never failed to tell
us how sad they were not to be part of Romania. Every one of them tried to take advantage
of us, but nothing could change their poor opinion of us. We tried to make horses available
to them; we helped with the harvest, but to no avail. They simply would not accept us. It
was completely different for the troops that were staying in the ethnic German townships,
where they were greeted as the liberators of Transylvania.
On 17 May we loaded up on trains and started heading toward the western front. We all
quietly hoped to be diverted to Tyrol, but that did not happen. Moving into Bavaria, we
traveled along the edge of the Alps. Everywhere we were greeted by cheers. In Ulm in
Württemberg we received a friendly reception that I never would have expected after three
years of war. Just as in 1914, everybody was out in the streets, raining flowers onto the
train. When the train stopped in Pforzheim, people brought bread and beer to the train,
even though everything was severely rationed. We knew once more what we had been
fighting for. The homeland had restored our strength.
We finally off-loaded in Alsace10 and started retraining to prepare for the fighting in the
West. We rehearsed attacks near the Kaiserstuhl,11 and my company was quartered in the
town of Sasbach at the foot of Hohenlimburg Castle, supposedly the birthplace of
Rudolf,12 the first of the Habsburgs.
The 10th Jäger Battalion had close ties to the Alsace region. Not only had the unit spent
a decade in Colmar and Bitche, but it also had many Alsatians in its ranks, and they were
well treated. Only one defected, a Jäger named Huy who was a Lothringian13 of French
descent. All the others remained loyal to Germany and to the battalion. In 1918 one of our
Alsatians shot an Oberjäger in a forward observation post who had been telling his troops
that the war was lost and that it did not make any sense to continue. Reluctantly, the last
Alsatians left the unit in May 1919, led by Offizierstellvertreter14 Guirrlinger: “We have
no choice,” he said. “We have to go home. Otherwise we lose our homeland.”
Alsatians were not supposed to fight on the western front. Every unit that was
redeployed from the eastern to the western front had to report that all Alsatians and
Lothringians had been transferred out. The 10th Jäger Battalion turned in a bogus report. I
still had quite a few Alsatians in my company. According to regulations, they were not
allowed to go back to their home villages on leave. I assembled them, told them about the
policy, and then released them to their hometowns. They promised with a handshake in
front of the entire company to remain on call and return within twelve hours notice. Not
one of them broke his promise.
They were the best soldiers in Germany. The French Revolution had made it possible
for them to move up. Rapp and Ney, to name only two of Napoleon’s generals, were both
Alsatians. Germany had nothing similar to offer in those days. Who could blame them for
being sympathetic to the French cause then?15 The last forty-five years, however, had been
the best that Alsace had ever seen. The younger generation felt very much like Germans.
We were also garrisoned in Sundgau,16 a quiet, beautiful landscape where not a single
shot was fired. One of our most onerous tasks was the requirement to censor the mail of
our own soldiers. It destroyed trust every time a superior did not handle this carefully. The
older veterans were generally calm about the whole process. It was the young
replacements who were always complaining. But in their letters they certainly fabricated
the most incredible acts of heroism that never occurred here in the quiet parts of Alsace
where no shots were fired.
Battle for Moldavia
I had the opportunity to take a short leave in the Champagne region to see my father,
whose division was stationed there. Then we were loaded up and sent back to the eastern
front. On 8 August we detrained in Focşani, Romania.
Despite the tense strategic situation that was draining Germany, OHL17 decided to
force Russia into collapse by inflicting a series of limited objective blows. The continuing
revolutionary disintegration of the Russian Army seemed to make such a strategy feasible.
Following a series of tactical successes in eastern Galicia, a sharp thrust in the area of
Focşani was supposed to lead to the collapse of the Russian front there. The Romanian
forces had not returned yet. They were in Moldavia, reconstituting and rebuilding under
French general Henri Bertholet.18 Ludendorff had high hopes for this offensive, and he
gave it priority over the attack on Italy, which was still in the planning phase. By the time
we off-loaded in Focşani the offensive was already in progress. To our front the artillery
was firing fiercely, and the Alpenkorps19 had moved forward across the Putna River. We
passed through our own firing batteries, which were emplaced on both sides of the road.
Vehicles and formations moved continuously in both directions. All of this was going on
under strong Russian artillery fire, which amazingly enough caused little damage. There
was nothing you could really do about it. All you could do was quietly march on, hoping
that nothing happened.
At noon on 12 August the attack started across the steep and wide Şuşiţa Valley.
Prussian and Bavarian Jägers descended into the valley. Wave after wave ran across the
valley floor and ascended the opposite side. As far as the eye could see the valley was
filled with advancing riflemen. The Russian infantry broke and ran. We increased the pace
of the advance, but as always, the lead element got through and the follow-on elements got
hit. The whole river valley was under Russian interdiction fire. Machine guns came
coughing to life from somewhere, but we had to get through. Wave after wave went
through the valley, with the dirt kicking up right and left and in front and behind us. Noise
everywhere as we ran on and heard the pinging of the bullets around us. And then before
we knew it, we were on the other side of the valley.
It was a powerful, morale-building sight, the valley full of exploding shells and
shrapnel and advancing troops everywhere. Not one of them hesitated or looked for cover.
There is nothing like the German soldier. One Jäger of my machine gun company carried
his heavy ammo cans despite being shot through the arm, and he continued until the fight
was over.
The Russians also must have seen it that way. They threw down their weapons and
equipment and took off. What counterattacks they managed to launch quickly stalled
under our counterfire. At the northern edge of Crucea de Sus we reached our objective.
We did not take a lot of prisoners. They ran too fast. Only a few German-Russians from
Odessa gave themselves up. The Russians seemed to have lost all motivation, as Kerensky
apparently intended.20
On 14 August we continued the attack. The objective was to block the Oitoz Pass,
which meant we had to conduct a wide, sweeping movement to the left. Our artillery
hammered away, morning and afternoon. The battalion staff, with whom I was co-located,
sat in a small, narrow ditch under heavy Russian fire. As we sat huddled closely together,
clods of earth dropped on our steel helmets and the continuous roaring jolted the air. We
could not even distinguish the individual detonations. Then there was a lull in the artillery
fire and we all looked up. High above us in a nut tree sat a young Austrian artillery officer
who was directing the fires of his battery and not paying particular attention to the Russian
artillery fire.
When the battalion assembled, I went forward to my machine guns. We moved ahead
swiftly. In Straoane the fleeing Russians were everywhere. The houses in the town were
packed together so closely it was difficult to see anything. A huge Russian came out of
one house screaming, the blood pouring out of his chest like a jet of water. Then he
collapsed. From the left we heard the shout, “Russian counterattack!” Some troops came
running back. Then Russians jumped out of the cornfield twenty paces away, bayonets
fixed. A really tall one aimed directly at me, but I was faster. Two of my machine gun
crews came running up, gasping for air. “Assume positions, firing direction toward the
open field, half right!” As the ammo belts were inserted into the feeder tray, a row of
Russian riflemen stepped into the open, hesitating as they saw the open field. A young
Russian officer jumped ahead of the line, yelled something at them, and swung his saber.
Then the machine guns opened up. As if hit by a single blow the Russians fell. No one
escaped, and the Russian counterattack stalled. Right to our front, fifty meters away in a
white house, something was moving. I knelt down next to a machine gun and pointed in
the direction, when I was hit in the chest. I fell down and my troops pulled me behind the
closest building. Coming from the half right a rifle bullet had hit my left side just above
the heart, entered above the ribs, and lodged in my upper left arm.
My troops hauled me through heavy artillery fire back to the aid station. The number of
Russian dead was enormous. Then I drove myself to the field hospital in Focşani, where
they cut the bullet out of my arm. The surgeon wanted to send me to a recovery center in
Râmnicu Sărat, but I refused to go. I wanted to go back to the front. But when he
disagreed, I just got dressed, grabbed a taxi in Focşani, and went back to my unit.
Things had been rough while I was gone. When the battalion was getting ready to
attack through the vineyards the next day at noon, the Russians were doing exactly the
same—whether it was just a coincidence or they knew of our intentions, we would never
know. Closely lined up, six to ten rows deep, they made contact with our thin firing line.
Within mere moments the battalion lost almost all of its officers. Of the company
commanders only Nottbohm remained uninjured, and thanks to his vigilance and courage
the enemy’s attack stalled. My machine gun crews also earned the highest praise. Their
fire had cleaned up the Russians horribly. Oberjäger Seebode deserves special mention.
He was one of the most courageous men I have ever known. He served in this war as a
frontline soldier from the first to the last day.
Then something monstrous happened. As our forward line was holding, they sent the
POWs to the rear. Those prisoners ran into the gun crews of the machine gun battalion of a
mountain unit that was moving forward. The machine gunners opened fire and
immediately spread the alarm that the Russians had broken through. One of our batteries
limbered up and rushed away. The resulting wave of panic swept over everyone who was
to the rear of our front line of troops. Some Austrian gun crews even abandoned their
howitzers. One battery buried its breech blocks. A thick stream of refugees poured down
the Şuşiţa Valley. The divisional cavalry squadron tried in vain to stem the tide with drawn
sabers. After ten to fifteen kilometers the panicked rout ended in total exhaustion.
Throughout the whole sad affair my battalion, with hardly any officers and taking heavy
losses, had held the line steadfastly. To their front the Russian corpses were piled high.
Not a single man ran, not an inch of ground was lost. The battery of the German
Alpenkorps also had stood fast.
Slowly things returned to normal from the chaos. I was riding forward with my arm in
a sling, looking for my company’s supply element. I found them in total disarray. The
Futtermeister21 had totally lost it. He had given the order to his men not to saddle up and
to just save themselves. In his panic he had joined the flood of fleeing civilians, instead of
extracting himself and the company’s horses. Some of the pack horses and their saddles
were lost. He really had it coming.
In the evening I took command of my company again. I passed over the spot where I
had been wounded. I was looking for the young Russian officer who four days ago had so
courageously pushed his soldiers forward. I did not find him. At the spot where I had
thought he would be there was a small ditch. Had he been able to crawl back to it? I hoped
so. Our positions were in the Valea Rea, a dull, barren valley. The ground was barren and
rocky, with thin grass full of thorns growing along the hillsides that were cut by ragged
and deep gorges.
On 29 August we attacked one more time. After ten minutes of a powerful artillery
preparation everything was covered in dust and smoke. The earth was trembling and
shaking. At 0700 hours we stood at the ready. We could not see out more than one
hundred meters. The air was impenetrable. Making a fast sweep we quickly reached the
Zăbrătău River, our objective of the day. Everywhere the Russians were fleeing, along
with their supply trains. The enemy’s artillery had displaced to the rear without firing a
single shot. We had achieved a total breakthrough and the enemy in front of us was in
complete disarray. But we had orders not to advance farther, and so we dug in.
There is a strange phenomenon known to anybody who has been on the front lines for a
long time. Officers, enlisted soldiers, tough warriors who are not easily shaken, who react
with a strange calm even under the heaviest fire, suddenly become very nervous and
anxious. Their orientation becomes unsure, and before the day is over a bullet cuts their
lives short. I had two runners. Paul was a quiet farmer from the Eifel region and Heublein
was a forester from the Meiningen area. Neither soldier was ever afraid to be in the thick
of it and was always ready to accomplish any mission. All of a sudden, Heublein became
unsure of himself. It was so obvious that Paul remarked to me, “Lieutenant, the time has
come for him.”
Heublein never would have gone back to the rear, even if I had ordered him to stand
down and stay with the pack animals. So I told him, “Heublein, go back to the supply train
and get two machine gun bolts. We’ll need them after the attack.”
“Lieutenant, I cannot leave you now, we are getting ready to assault.”
“It does not matter, the bolts are more important.”
I thought I had done my best. I said to Paul, “Well, we have saved Heublein.” Later a
Jäger came up to me and reported, “Lieutenant, Heublein is dead. He is lying fifty meters
behind the position, still clutching two machine gun bolts to his chest.”
The same sort of thing happened to one of our best company commanders, Reserve
Lieutenant Braun.
The next morning we were woken up by yelling that the Russians were attacking in
close order. I was able to observe everything from the position of one of my machine gun
platoons. The steep and densely overgrown valley of the Zăbrătău River was to our front.
On the other side, a barren, coverless hillside gradually descended two kilometers toward
the river. We could see individual Russians moving forward. They skillfully used every
dip in the terrain for cover. Although our positions were under heavy fire, the Russians
were having difficulty pinpointing targets. Group after group emerged from a wooded area
along the horizon, often in tight four-man crews pulling a machine gun.22 The ground was
bone dry. In the bright sunshine you could observe the impact of a bullet at eighteen
hundred to nineteen hundred meters.
The platoon leader correctly analyzed the situation. Offizierstellvertreter Mewes was
one of our last remaining active duty Oberjägers. He concentrated the fire of his platoon
on the four-man teams pulling the machine guns. He allowed them to move forward far
into the barren river flats; then his two machine guns briefly barked. Rounds impacted
around the enemy groups as they desperately tried to take cover behind their equipment.
But in the end the Russian machine guns sat surrounded by their dead crews. Machine gun
crew after machine gun crew stormed forward and was cut down after a few hundred
meters. When the attack finally broke down we counted more than twenty Russian
machine guns surrounded by dead bodies on the naked hill fifteen hundred meters to our
front. Thanks to accurate observation, this was the most effective machine gun fire I ever
experienced.
The Russians now became more aggressive. The fires of three artillery batteries started
hitting Mewes’s platoon, but his machine guns kept firing without interruption. I can still
see Oberjäger Sohnekind as he stood out in front of his machine gun calmly clearing away
the brush from the line of fire, as if he were back on the farm harvesting. Meanwhile,
other soldiers reloaded ammunition belts until their fingers were bleeding. Again and
again one man would come from the rear where the pack animals were, break through the
enemy fire, throw two ammo cans at us, and then race back to bring more forward. By the
time it was all over the platoon had fired more than ninety thousand rounds.
One afternoon I moved along the front line and as I came to the 2nd Company I called
for Nottbohm. Suddenly, a rather disturbed face appeared out of a hole in front of me. I
was shocked. I had not expected this from Nottbohm. “Man, get in here quickly; our own
artillery is firing on us.” And there it was, rolling in from the rear. A round of at least 150
mm detonated between us and the forward line, then another, and another. Yelling over the
phone was useless. We had just made a connection when the line was destroyed. The only
bright spot was that one of our artillery forward observers was huddling in the hole with
us. We wholeheartedly felt that he deserved this unexpected pleasure.
At the first opportunity I got out of that lethal area and moved back to the ravine where
the battalion staff was positioned. It was not an especially pleasant place either, because
they were under Russian artillery from three sides. I had just reached the position when I
heard the same terrifying rushing sound, followed immediately by the crashing noise of
the exploding shell. Now, to top it all off, we were being fired upon by our own artillery
from the fourth side of the ravine. The telephone line naturally went out immediately.
Runners rushed off in all directions. But the eerie explosions did not stop. All rank and
ethnic differences disappeared. Russian POWs, runners, officers, everybody was trying to
take cover in any corner that looked at least partially safe. After thirty minutes it was over.
We later learned that a 150 mm naval gun battery had fired without actual observation,
using only map spotting.
A heavy rain poured down on us. A torrent of water swept us away with all of our
equipment, and then the Romanians repeated the same kind of attack that the Russians had
tried a few days ago. The first signs of the impending attack had been a number of
defectors. One of them even brought his machine gun with him. Since we could not
observe the impact of our bullets on the wet ground, the Romanians were able to break
through our machine gun fire almost without losses. Then they reached the thicket and the
ravines of the Zăbrătău River valley. From there they tried all day long to assault, over and
over again. Each time they failed against the iron resolve of our 3rd Company. The dead
piled up in front of their positions, sometimes three to four rows deep. I counted forty
dead just at one critical point.
The offensive in Moldavia was over, but it had not achieved what Ludendorff had
hoped for. Why? The supporting attack originally planned to come from Bukovina in the
north toward our position in the south was cancelled because of a lack of forces.
Furthermore, we had started the offensive before the most combat-ready brigade of the
Alpenkorps had arrived. Consequently, this excellent brigade was thrown into the fight
after it had been raging for days. The element of surprise was gone. The RussianRomanian reserves and their strongest artillery forces had been massed in front of our axis
of advance.
There is an iron rule of tactics: Do not start an attack unless all your forces are
assembled. How often did we violate this basic tenet, me included. “Klotzen nicht
kleckern,”23 that is what the old Guderian24 always hammered home. In this case, we had
taken half measures and we underestimated the enemy.
Germans are impatient. Waiting is an art that is foreign to us. Actions like the one in
Moldavia frustrate us. And still, the Moldavia Offensive was of the highest importance. It
broke the remaining strength of the Russian Army. It now was no longer an effective
combat force and it was falling apart internally to Bolshevism. Like so many politicians,
Kerensky, the Russian head of government at the time, had no understanding of what was
militarily possible with the means available. Instead of using his available forces to
stabilize the domestic situation in Russia, he tried to relieve the strategic pressure on the
western powers, and broke his own army in the process.25 The end result was a victory for
radicalism in Russia. At the decisive point Kerensky had thrown the wrong switch in
world history. The English gave him a good pension after the war. He had delivered for
them right on time.
Tyrolean Interlude
Whenever the Alpenkorps was loaded up, the rumor spread that we would be going to
Tyrol. This time it was for real. On 10 September we loaded on trains in Focşani. I was in
charge of the Alpenkorps’ advance party. If one has never loaded up an advance party, one
cannot even begin to imagine what it entails. The number of freight cars was fixed. But
every type of unit showed up with at least twice as many horses, vehicles, and people and
then tried to get on somehow. I was completely exhausted by the time everything was
finally loaded. To make matters worse, everybody was suffering from dysentery. Bad
weather, the constant eating of grapes, and unbelievably hot weather had brought
everybody down.
In Craiova the train was divided into two, and naturally both sections left before
everybody had returned from foraging. As usual, nobody had any idea about what was
going on, “Nem tudom. Nix Deitsch, Magyar.”26
On the 12th we passed through the Iron Gate.27 Even the Danube had shrunk to a
trickle because of the hot weather. Steep, brush-covered, sunscorched mountains flanked
the river. Some small islands in the river had medieval fortifications. One of them still
belonged to Turkey, a witness of the former expanse of the Ottoman Empire.
On the 13th I received a telegram, “Convoy commander notified to report immediately
to B.V.G. of 2nd T.L.28 in Vienna.” I got on the next fast train to Vienna, but the telegram
had been a false alarm. Nobody wanted to see me, but I got to see Vienna, St. Stephen’s
Cathedral, the Schünbrunn Palace, the Belvedere Palace, and the great dance shows in the
Variety Theater Ronacher. What a contrast there was between Vienna and Budapest, much
to Vienna’s favor. The people were friendly and nice. Everybody was very helpful and
they did not try to take you, like they did everywhere else. The military bearing of the
soldiers was also much better. After a slightly manipulated delay and with a bad
conscience I continued on to Salzburg, where I hoped to catch the troop train; but I arrived
twenty-four hours ahead of it. Salzburg too was wonderful. The old residential city greatly
appealed to my interests in history and architecture. Eventually the troop train arrived. It
had been rerouted accidentally through Ljubljana.29 For once I appreciated the Hungarian
lack of organization.
We finally off-loaded in Mattarello, near Trento, where we were totally reequipped. We
received a huge number of machine guns, twelve alone for the machine gun company, and
six for each Jäger company. I was put in charge of the machine gun training for the whole
battalion. In the healthy Tyrolean air all the illnesses we had picked up in Moldavia faded
quickly.
The positioning of the Alpenkorps in Tyrol was supposed to be a ruse, which naturally
nobody had told us about. Our presence became known like a wildfire. Our 2nd Company
had fought in Giudicarie30 for some time in 1915, and now we were back there again.
Some brave Jägers of the 2nd Company were clearly uncomfortable about returning to the
area. Upon our arrival several of them laid low in the backs of the trucks. But the locals
were not at all hostile. With no sense of rancor, mothers brought their “little Jägers” up to
the trucks to show them off full of pride to their fathers.
The convoy was a triumphant procession in every respect. Military bands played in the
towns and food was prepared. The front was dead quiet. Everywhere members of the
Austrian high nobility sat on the mountaintops and pretended they were at the front. The
officers even had their families with them. In short, it was an operetta war that could not
have been any nicer. We were handed cleanly printed souvenir brochures with lots of
sketches and other information. According to prisoner reports, the Italians were supposed
to advance across the Chiese River with two battalions and attack Zanè.31 The Austrians
had evacuated Zanè and two other villages. Once in a while a completely obsolete
howitzer from our side popped off some interdiction fire on the Chiese River crossing
sites. We were supposed to reoccupy the three towns in a night attack and destroy the
Italian force that had been blocked by the interdiction fire.
We advanced down the road in the darkness. The terrain did not allow us to move
forward anywhere else. There was nothing in the first village, and we kept advancing. At
the entrance to the next village we saw some movement and then a figure clad in white
appeared. “If you please, dinner for the officers is ready.” It was the cook of the local
officers’ mess. He knew the situation, and he was not concerned one bit.
The “battle” along the Chiese River continued. Orders were issued frantically, with the
most senior officers personally issuing directives. Nobody was allowed to decide
anything. High-ranking generals ordered individual patrols out and even briefed them
personally. It was micromanagement of the worst possible kind. But there were also quite
a few things accomplished. The positions were well prepared throughout. Every one of
them was built into caverns, and well protected against fires. All the roads and the
funiculars32 were built mostly by female construction companies, who sometimes also
improved the wire obstacles in front of the fighting positions.
Eventually everything climaxed into the preparation for an attack on Mount Vies. The
transport of our equipment on a funicular proved impossible. We had to haul it up
ourselves. We stayed overnight in the Malga Ringia. About the time we got there the
carrier company coming back from the mountaintop arrived, all of them happy and strong
women and girls who made the trip daily with a load of fifty pounds on their heads. It was
a balmy night on the Malga Ringia—and that was the end of the attack on Mount Vies.
Days earlier our commander, Kirchheim, had been asked about the attack on Mount
Vies by a waitress in Daone. She knew all the details and everything else worth
mentioning about it. We were appalled. But the typical German is too dense to play along
in a situation like that. The deception was perfectly organized. Our troops prepared for the
attack, fully convinced it was real and expecting it to come off. Nobody could fathom that
we were playing theater here.
We moved back toward Trento and then on to Pergine, which had been Italianized from
its former German name, Fersen. Along with the Italianization came dirt and poverty. The
old Renaissance palaces still stood as witnesses to the town’s former wealth. As I entered
my assigned quarters, I was swallowed up by a huge gate with a gothic hall behind it. It
once had been a warehouse belonging to old German patricians. I walked up to the second
floor and an ill-clad, dirty, old woman opened the door. I found myself in a big hallway
with precious antique furniture everywhere and old engravings hanging on the walls. The
old woman spoke only Italian. She disappeared and a young girl appeared, who seemed to
be from a family of education and standing. Speaking German, she apologized that her
mother had misplaced the key to my room. What a surprise! The mother of this house full
of old engravings and precious furniture was this old frump who received me at the door.
From my room I could see the Fersen Castle and the magnificent alpine world. A few
days later we were on a train again, heading toward the Isonzo River. On the wall of the
train station there was a notice from the Imperial and Royal Austrian Railways warning,
“Railway employees caught selling bread to prisoners of war will be fired and punished
with conscription into the military.” You could not have insulted the military profession
more.
Eviva Germania33
In Arnoldstein in Carinthia we got off the train, crossed the Wurzen Pass, and arrived in
Carniola.34 The names of the towns were German, the population was Slovenian. The few
remaining Germans, mostly belonging to the upper class, had no faith in the future. They
knew the Slovenians were pushing them out, but they conceded, “They have fought a
good fight.” The landscape, including the jewel-like Lake Velden, lay before us in all its
autumn beauty. We reconnoitered the advance route and the assembly area. There was not
a single inch of land in this valley that was not covered with equipment for the offensive.
One howitzer to the next, one mortar to the next. The valley was filled with fog and rain.
On 20 October it snowed and rained, which offered the advantage of surprise, but which
also could go completely wrong for us.35 We marched across almost impassable mountain
crests into the region of Gorizia. It was a horrible route, but thank God the rain had
stopped. The troops in front of us along the route of march had thrown away all kinds of
equipment, including machine guns, ammunition, pack saddles, oats, and bread. A few
dead pack animals lay along the way. On the descent we had to chain up our pack animals.
We spent the night in the most miserable huts. The next day, 22 October, was about the
same, but the sun finally came out. The timing was perfect. Our advance had been covered
in fog, and then at the right moment the weather turned good.
I had to ride forward again to reconnoiter. The roads were completely jammed. Twice I
got stalled so badly that I could not move ahead or back. A distance that would normally
comfortably take ten minutes on horseback took me an hour and a half. An Italian aircraft
appeared overhead twice and we shot at it intensely. Actually, the enemy should have
figured it out by that point. The two avenues of approach into the bridgehead at Tolmin36
were already under artillery fire. I reconnoitered our assembly area as the artillery fire
grew more intense. From Mount Mrzli Vrh the Italians were firing interdiction fire, and
that night the fire grew heavy on both advance routes.
The battalion finally arrived, hours late. Thank God it was still under the cover of
darkness. On 23 October we rested in the assembly area, taking only occasional enemy
artillery fire. Early on 24 October the gas attack started. But rain also set in, raising
questions about how effective the gas would be. Then at dawn the earth began to tremble,
as an incredible preparation barrage commenced. Smoke, fog, and rain filled the valley,
reducing visibility to less than three hundred meters. The Bavarian Life Guards Infantry
Regiment to our front started the assault, and we moved directly behind them. The
counterfire was minimal. The first Italian positions were completely destroyed by artillery
and mortar fire. Some of the captured enemy gun crews were moving toward us. They
were sent to the rear by the Leiber.37 Even from a distance we could tell that the Italians
were relieved that it was over for them. One battery commander was captured with his
guns. They had been expecting an attack by two Hungarian divisions since the 18th; they
knew nothing about German troops. “Hopefully you will be in Milano soon. Then at least
this horrible war will be over.”
The attack advanced and the main objective of the enemy positions on Hill 1114 was
taken. The Leibers reported two thousand prisoners and twenty-five captured artillery
pieces. We moved on along the endless serpentine paths under heavy artillery fire onto
Mount Hasevenik, where we spent a bitterly cold night. On 25 October we were wakened
by heavy artillery fire. I was hit on my steel helmet by a large chunk of rock, which
knocked me down. On Hill 1114 the situation was still unclear. We moved forward
through knocked-out batteries and heavy fires, but took no losses. A machine gun salvo
ripped right over our heads. Our 4th Company was supposed to take an Italian position
between the Bavarian Life Guards Regiment and the Bavarian Jägers. I reconnoitered
forward to assess how to support that maneuver with my machine guns. In a maze of small
hilltops I could see an Italian position in deep and heavily covered ditches screened with
strong obstacles. My current position had recently been the headquarters of an Italian
divisional staff. It had a well-stocked commissary. From there I could see the plain below
and a network of excellent roads.
When the commander of the 4th Company, Lieutenant Müller, was killed right next to
me, I also assumed command of the 4th. While I was still contemplating how to lead the
attack, the Italians decided to make it easy for me. Along the whole front line white sheets
popped up and three hundred men came running and jumping toward us. “Eviva
Germania, la Guerra finite, la Guerra finite! A Milano, a Milano!”38 Laughing, they
slapped us on the shoulders. The only one real danger was being trampled to death by
them. When I sent a few men over to the Italian position, a machine gun opened up. They
would not let us approach, but they did let their own people go. A real hard head had to be
over there still.
I committed two platoons to the attack, supported by four machine guns. Just then a
Feldwebel Leutnant39 of the Bavarian Jägers emerged from a ravine with his platoon. He
was walking right into the enemy’s fire. I yelled at him to stop. “I do not take orders from
you,” he responded in a thick Bavarian accent. His principled defense of his Bavarian turf
rights cost him two dead and three wounded.
The Italian position finally fell. On the next hill crest we played the same game. Again,
white sheets and deserters, and again a desperately defending Italian with a machine gun.
One of my own gunners was having trouble keeping his piece in action. I jumped forward
and took over the gun. Just as I had fired off half an ammunition belt, I got hit in the chest,
hands, and back by an Italian machine gun salvo. According to the 10th Jäger Battalion
official report: “. . . two grazing shots across the right hand, one across the left hand, one
across the right side of the chest, one on the left shoulder blade. Everything minor.” Even
the most senior veterans could not remember anyone having that much luck, ever.
The following day I was leading my company with both arms in a sling. In the
meantime, the Jägers had advanced toward the machine gun, which was being fired by an
Italian colonel. As they took him prisoner he tried to pull his pistol, but he could not get it
out of the holster. With tears running down his cheeks the only thing he could say was:
“What a shame to be Italian.”
“Mort a te Cadorna”40 was written in large letters in countless spots in the Italian
trenches. The Italians were completely demoralized. They fled toward the rear, leaving
everything behind—artillery piece next to artillery piece, supply wagon next to supply
wagon, and as many rations as we could have wanted. Prisoners by the thousands marched
toward us, constantly yelling “Eviva Germani! Eviva Germania!”
Pursuit
We descended the steep hillsides and into the plains. The situation remained one of total
collapse, with fleeing automobile convoys and at one position a battery firing off its last
rounds. We could see the crews servicing the guns, and then it was every man for himself.
White flares were being fired off to the right and to the left as far as one could see. They
marked the forward line of our troops, aggressively advancing along a wide front. In San
Pietro we crossed paths with the 12th Infantry Division’s Upper Silesian regiments, totally
drunk, loaded down with bacon, sausages, and chocolate, but still advancing. There was
no stopping us now. The morale was fabulous. Everything had the aura of an event of
world historical significance. Added to that, our losses had been minimal—only 224 dead,
wounded, or sick in the entire Alpenkorps. The bag for the first day alone was forty
howitzers and thirteen thousand POWs.
We reached the plains. Italy was supposed to be the best supplied front line of the
Allies, and it certainly was. After a few days there were no more skinny horses in the
company. My company became unrecognizable, with everyone decked out in the newest,
best-quality Italian trousers, boots, and clothing. Our quarters were excellent, often in
substantial castles. But then the rain came and it poured down without end. The water
rushed down from the southern slopes of the Alps, which were only lightly forested.
The 14th Reserve Jäger Battalion ahead of us had marched through the Torrente Grivò
without getting their feet wet. Then the water came rushing down with unbelievable
power. The company in front of me still made it across the torrente,41 but my company,
the last in the battalion column, had the water up to our belts. The troops had to hold on to
each other to prevent being swept away. It was an indescribably comical scene, with
everybody carrying recently requisitioned open umbrellas forcing their way through the
water. One pack animal at the end of the company was swept away with its guide.
Feldwebel Wiederholt, my best and most courageous platoon leader, saved the guide at the
risk of his own life, and received the life saving medal.
The next unit in line, the 10th Reserve Jäger Battalion, was not able to get across the
torrente. Even though cables were strung across the torrente for the Jägers to hold on to,
anyone who tried it was swept away in the raging waters. Eventually the 10th Reserve
Jäger Battalion had to halt all attempts to make it across the Torrente Grivò. It had only
taken about half an hour from the time that the water came rushing in to the point where it
became impossible to get across. On the maps the Torrente Grivò was indicated as only a
harmless trickle.
A little farther on the Tagliamento River was normally a small creek, but it too had
become a raging river that held up the pursuit. A wagon loaded with heavy howitzer
ammunition that had been pushed into the river to function as a bridge support was turned
over. All of the roads were blocked with discarded military equipment, and several
thousand Italians who also had been cut off by the flooding threw down their weapons.
The rain had saved the Italian Army from total annihilation and Italy itself from total
collapse—and it robbed us of victory.
The weather conditions meant a few days of rest for us. I took advantage to make a
small detour to Udine, which had been cut off by a German brigade. Actually, no one was
allowed to enter the town, but I finally got permission. It was the most maddening sight I
had ever seen. Every window was broken; all the stores were looted; and there were heaps
of broken glass everywhere. You could not even identify the original purpose of any of the
stores. Everything was a black, tamped-down mass, covered with the stench of vomit and
red wine.
In March 1918, I sat on a court-martial board in Mörchingen in Lorraine. A supply
NCO from the logistics command of the Alpenkorps had brought goods back to Germany
from Udine valued at 50,000 marks. He was caught in Munich. When he had arrived in
Udine, tens of thousands of people were looting, half of them Italians and the other half
Austrians. The NCO bought a truck full of fabrics worth 20,000 marks by paying 20
kronen42 and one hundred cigarettes. Truck drivers were earning between 20,000 and
30,000 kronen on the road from Udine to Bled.43 Along the railroad lines commercial
companies had sprung up that were making incredible profits—thankfully all without
German participation. But because the trucks were being used for other things,
ammunition did not get forward.
Reaching a verdict proved difficult. The defense argued that when the man reached
Udine, he saw tens of thousands of people looting and breaking into the stores. How could
this one man stop anything? We finally acquitted the NCO, because in Udine the principle
of “unclaimed merchandise” could be applied, and because the defendant had not acted
with criminal intent. A decisive factor in the verdict was the fact that he was Jewish. He
just had a different perspective on business matters. It was a somewhat convoluted
rationale, because war booty technically belongs to the state. But the verdict was just. The
judges, who even admitted to being anti-Semitic, concurred.
Taking a detour along the Via Venetia, I returned to my company. Everywhere it was
the same picture of incredible collapse. Eventually an Austrian division was able to ford
the Tagliamento River where it exits the mountains near San Daniele. We slogged on in
the pouring rain, soaked to the bones. All the roads were covered with heavy mud. It took
the entire column three days to march across the bridge. Everybody was nervous, tired,
edgy, seeing every other fellow human as a personal enemy. It was nothing but rain, rain,
and more rain. We would slosh ahead for three minutes, then stop for a half an hour, then
move ahead for another minute, and then stop for an hour. This went on for three days and
the rain just kept pouring down.
But soldiers are inventive. After a little while everybody had a chair and an umbrella
and sat down happily during longer halt periods under the cover of the umbrella. When it
came time to march on, they moved the couple of steps that the column would actually
move, taking their chairs and umbrellas with them. This was the famous “night chair
march” of the Alpenkorps across the Tagliamento River. We had often ridiculed the Italian
commander in chief, Cadorna, who almost always canceled offensives because of bad
weather. In cartoons he was always drawn carrying an umbrella. The man had been
wronged terribly.
When after three days the endless marching and the Tagliamento lay behind us, the
pursuit turned into a frontal push. The Alpenkorps followed as the second echelon. Even
though the subsequent river crossings were conducted more expertly, the rain kept coming
back in a deluge, and dry creek beds turned into large streams within minutes.
Monte Tombea44
Maintaining constant enemy contact, we followed toward the Piave River, which we
reached near Valdobbiadene. The Piave at that point emerges from the Alps into the
northern Italian plains. The front line, which had stabilized in the river flats from north to
south, made a sharp right angle at Valdobbiadene and followed along the southern slopes
of the Alps exactly from east to west. As a mountain unit, the Alpenkorps was naturally
ordered across the Piave and into the mountains.
The Italians, meanwhile, had recovered with the support of the French and English
divisions that had arrived to help them. We were hoping that we would be able to take care
of the resistance along the Piave quickly, especially since Field Marshal Franz Conrad von
Hötzendorf’s South Tyrolean Army Group was standing ready to attack on the plateau of
Sette Communi45 near Asiago and Arsiero.
There was a footbridge exactly at the point where the front made a 90-degree right turn
on the Piave River near San Vito. It sat between the front lines in no-man’s-land. All of the
approach routes were covered by interdiction fires. Kirchheim wanted to cross with four
Jäger companies at the footbridge. He handed responsibility for all the pack animals to
me. I was supposed to march them and my machine gun company northward on the
eastern bank of the Piave River, and then cross farther upstream out of artillery range. But
that route was also under fire and—even worse—subject to rock slides. Discounting any
Italian action, which was possible but highly unlikely, I decided to follow Kirchheim over
the footbridge. I went first, followed by seven hundred pack animals. Harassing fire in the
mountains, where evasive maneuvering is impossible, does not exactly make for a
pleasure walk on a narrow valley road. Marching slowly, stopping every few minutes for
all elements to catch up, we reached Fener. It was an inferno like on the western front, but
I was able to work my way around with the first twenty pack animals. Pack animal guide
Number 20 had hesitated at every point along the way whenever I asked, “Has everybody
caught up?” “All caught up!” he would answer; but it was not exactly so.
We had to go back. Close to the bridge most of the pack animals had turned left instead
of right, and they were heading straight toward the enemy. Totally exhausted, I finally
caught up with the lead animals, which by then were almost on top of the Italian positions.
Turning them all around, we started back. This time, I stopped at the critical junction
while under horrific fire and waited until the last animal had passed. By the time all
elements had reassembled north of Fener and were safe and accounted for, we had had
minimal losses. Three men had been killed by direct hits. But it was still a night of
frustration.
The Mount Tombea massif with its foothills blocked the entrance to the plains. Taking
this mountain was our mission. We moved into the mountain along narrow access paths,
toward the two bridge locations under fire, where we crossed the torrente. Even weak
artillery fire can turn a night march into hell. The path went straight up on the steep, razorsharp ridges, slippery with wet snow. It was more than hell, because of the constant impact
of mortar rounds.
There were no supplies coming forward, no bread. For days we scraped chestnuts out
of the snow. There was no salt either. For eight days all we had was cold and saltless food,
including the half-frozen chestnuts. Our only shelter from the weather was a thin, drafty
tent half. All of this was enough to make this mountain a version of hell, even without the
enemy’s constant artillery fire. Our Austrian comrades called Mount Tombea “Monte
Paura.”46 There was nothing to add to that.
At night constant traffic moved along the narrow crest paths. Relief parties going up
and down, carrier details, ammunition, mines, rations, wounded soldiers, everything and
everybody moved back and forth in two uninterrupted lines through the most intense
mortar fire. The descent was even more difficult than the ascent, because men constantly
slipped and fell. Suddenly, there was a scream for a medic. The medics grabbed the man in
the darkness and stuffed him into a tent canvas suspended from a tent pole. Then four men
dragged the supposedly wounded man down the mountain. We did not leave our comrades
behind. At the bottom of the slope the stretcher bearers collapsed with exhaustion… but
then the “wounded” man jumped up and disappeared into the dark. That was the only time
I heard such human cries of utter anger and frustration.
Sometimes the shooting stopped. Heads popped up and you could see the Adriatic Sea
on the horizon, Venice in the distance, and below us the town of Fener, built like it was
made out of a wooden toy kit. “Run down to the local pub and get me a bottle of
champagne,” called Jung, our battalion adjutant, who was always good for a joke. One
young Jäger actually got up and ran down to the town, returning with four hundred bottles
of Marsala. The effect on our bodies, which hardly ever received any real nutrition, was
devastating. The whole battalion was combat ineffective down to the last man.
The order to attack came as a relief. The Italian position was on a steep ridge. A narrow
ridge ran toward the Italian main position. To the right the Leibers were supposed to attack
to repel flanking attacks. Artillery fire was laid on the Italian position. The infantry assault
was supposed to start at 0900, but nothing happened. Suddenly there was a raging
crashing and whirring of splinters and rocks. Everything was covered in smoke and dust as
shell after shell came in. All communications were out, and we had no word from the front
line. Finally, a walking wounded came back from the 2nd Company. The Italians had
moved into the gap between us and the Leib Regiment and had attacked our 2nd Company
in the wire obstacles from behind. Our assault had stalled with horrible losses. All the
officers had been killed and the 2nd Company flooded back into its initial attack position.
The gorge was full of human corpses. The Italian heavy howitzer shells hit with incredible
force. You could see clearly as the shells came in.47 As they burst with a horrific bang the
air was full of the shouts, “Medic, Medic!” At 1245 hours the Italian troops got on line for
the assault. Even though some of our troops were retreating, a mountain gun from a Lower
Saxony unit was pulled forward. Elements of the 1st Company under Feldwebel Falcke
immediately prepared to counterattack. Our machine guns hammered away and finally
threw the enemy back to his initial positions. Then help arrived in the form of a thick layer
of fog that covered the mountain and facilitated the recovery of casualties and the
withdrawal of our most forward elements.
One by one the casualties came stumbling back. One of them had gone mad and was
crying like a child. Another had been buried alive and had lost his hearing, screaming all
the time that he could not hear anymore. It was horrible. The Italians, however, never fired
on retreating casualties that were walking or were being carried. They always stopped
firing in such situations, which was absolutely unique in this war.
The 10th Reserve Jäger Battalion relieved us. We bivouacked in the valley near the
railroad tunnel and the remnants of the battalion got some rest. That was the first and only
time during the war that an attack by the 10th Jäger Battalion had been repulsed. The
enemy artillery fire in our sector had just been too heavy, and the Leibers had been poorly
positioned to protect our flank from the enemy. Consequently and understandably, the
Leib Regiment had not attacked to cover us, but we never got the word.
In 1970 I returned to Mount Tombea. In my estimation, the attack should have
succeeded if the staff of the Alpenkorps had considered committing the artillery of the
adjacent division to our left. That would have choked off the Italians from the rear. Hardly
any force could have withstood something like that.
We redistributed equipment in the bivouac area. Despite heavy losses, my courageous
troops had not lost any equipment and had not left any of our wounded behind. Then we
were hit with gas, as the poisonous vapors entered our railway tunnel. You learn who your
friends are in such situations. As one soldier was trying to grab somebody else’s mask in
order to save himself, a runner came up to me, stood calmly at attention, and said, “Sir,
your gas mask!” Only then did he put his own on.
“Monte Paura” was still holding us in its grip. We marched back up and relieved the
10th Reserve Jäger Battalion. We stayed up there for an extra day, and then we finally
came down under orders. Inconveniently, our assigned rest area was situated to our left on
the plains. We had to cross through the interdiction fire zone three times when we were
relieved to go back to Vas. There we crossed the Piave River, which had been impossible
to do in San Vito. Back on the other side of the Piave, we moved on difficult trails toward
our left and front just short of Valdobbiadene, and from there straight away from the front
line to Mareno, where our supplies were located. The total march was forty kilometers.
It was deathly quiet when we moved off Mount Tombea on 12 December—my
birthday. In Fener it started up again, as we were subjected to raid after raid. The pack
animals bolted from the designated holding area. We found them after many hours of
tramping across the mountains. Daylight was gone as we pressed ahead under time
pressure. I had ordered vehicles to meet us to pick up our equipment and the troops, but
the Italian artillery had scattered them. Rain, mud, and a thick layer of sludge covered
everything. Not a button or a rank insignia could be recognized. Desperate, on the edge of
mutiny, the column pressed ahead, eyes glazed over, breathing heavily, muttering hard and
angry words. As we were marching past the billets of an Austrian general officer’s
headquarters, a cook dressed in white, wearing his chef’s hat and carrying a tray of freshly
baked pastries, tried to shove his way through the column. I thought to myself, “This is not
going to go well.” At just that moment the cook was picked up and dumped on his head,
and the tray of pastries was passed down the column. While the mud-covered cook sat on
the side of the road, faces brightened, bodies straightened up, and marching along they
sang, “Hurrah, I am a hunter of the 10th Jäger Battalion.”
When we reached Mareno everybody collapsed into a death-like sleep. Then came the
order, “Alert! Back to Mount Tombea!” We retraced our steps all over again, but when we
arrived back at the peak we found that we were not needed anymore. We volunteered to
stay one more day on this “mountain of horror” just to relax. Then we turned back and
climbed down for good. The Italian campaign was over.
For the Record
Ludendorff had given priority to the offensive in Moldavia over the attack on Italy. As a
result, we were dragged into the Italian rainy season, the immense impact of which
nobody had had any clear idea about. Four to six weeks earlier the Tagliamento and the
Piave would have been small creeks that could have been crossed easily at any point. The
operational halt that had saved the Italians would not have happened. Originally, there had
been no follow-on objectives. The intent had been only to relieve pressure on the Isonzo
front with a short push. It is always a mistake, however, to push an offensive farther than
originally intended.
Between the wars Ludendorff came to a gathering in Goslar of the 165th Infantry
Regiment, which he had commanded at Liège. The officers stood on the parade field and
were introduced to Ludendorff. “Where did you earn your Hohenzollern?”48 he asked me.
“Near Tolmin,49 your Excellency.”
He looked at me musingly and said, “Ah, if only the Austrians had then…”
I wanted to say, “I thought we were never supposed to advance that far.” However, the
moment and my awe of this great soldier stopped me from showing the typical lieutenant’s
nerviness.
This time it certainly had not been the Austrians’ fault. Their Germanic divisions and
some of the others, particularly their Croatian and Bosnian regiments, had fought with the
same boldness as did the first-rate German divisions of General Otto von Below’s
Fourteenth Army. General Krauss who commanded an Austrian corps, proved to be a
master of mountain warfare and an outstanding leader of troops. Indeed, the attack of
Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf’s South Tyrolean Army Group near Asiago
in the Sette Comuni did not punch through. But Conrad’s forces had been too weak.
Reinforcements were not able to reach him because of the sad state of the Austrian railway
system. Some German units would have been able to reach him, but the consensus was
that the Germans should not have been committed to the operation. The German High
Command had made the correct decision in this case.
The question remains whether the Italian total collapse was predictable and calculable.
It is most peculiar that German Intelligence in 1917 had predicted neither the French
collapse of morale in the spring of that year, nor the Russian collapse, nor had it
recognized or reported on the condition of the Italians. The total failure of this service did
not allow us to see the potential for victory. If they had done a better job, many decisions
made by OHL would have been different—I am thinking here especially of the resumption
of unrestricted U-boat warfare. Victory would have certainly been ours if we could have
prevented America’s entry into the war, or even have delayed it.50
On the enemy’s side, the rains that had turned the Tagliamento, the Piave, and all the
other small streams into torrential, noncrossable rivers gave the Italians the time to halt the
retreat of their army. Nor would the French and the English divisions have reached the
Piave ahead of the Germans without those rainfalls.
There is another reason why the main Allied forces got to the right place at the right
time. Shortly before the breakthrough at Tolmin an English patrol found a postcard in noman’s-land that a German soldier had lost. Written on it was: “We are enjoying welldeserved peace and quiet here in Austria, Heinrich.” The card also included the field post
number, which Allied intelligence was able to determine belonged to the Alpenkorps. The
Allies then concluded correctly that wherever the Alpenkorps was, there would be the
main effort. Certain indicators were already pointing to an offensive in Italy. That postcard
from the field was the final piece of intelligence that contributed to the French and English
divisions arriving at the Piave River just in time to stop the Italian withdrawal.
On the Italian side they did everything that any army would do to restore such a
situation. Officers in the rank of captain and above that had abandoned their units were
picked up in the rear areas and summarily executed without trial. Hemingway talks about
this in A Farewell to Arms. In Albania in 1941 the Italian General Roni told me with some
sense of pride. “What the French were capable of doing with their iron discipline, we, the
Italians, did too.”51
Italy for the foreseeable future had eliminated itself as a serious world power. But our
Austrian allies also had shown such weakness that we had to be grateful that they were
even able to hold the Italian front. They were hardly capable of any further serious, active
participation in the war.
5
1918
Before the Decision
After my Christmas leave I rejoined my battalion near Bruderdorf, the area of the Battle of
Lorraine in 1914. Every step of the way I passed French and German grave sites. The
number of dead on the French side surpassed the Germans by a ratio of at least three- or
four-to-one. In 1914 the French infantry had bled needlessly and anonymously, forcing the
decision on the battlefield by attacking without regard for losses and in total disregard of
the effects of modern weaponry. The limp French attacks during the Battle of the Marne
and the subsequent Race to the Sea in late 1914 exhibited the same characteristics.
I asked Kirchheim for another Jäger company and was given command of the 4th. Up
to this point every commander of that company had been killed, twelve in all; but I was
not superstitious. Saying goodbye to my machine gun company was hard. Those were
marvelous soldiers. But in leading a Jäger company one is a true leader, while the
commander of a machine gun company is more of an organizer. And command, after all,
is the most meaningful and valuable aspiration in the life of a young officer.
The coming great offensive in the West cast its long shadow.1 A parade in honor of
Hindenburg turned into a disastrous event of rain, snow, and hours of standing in the icy
cold and muddy clay of Lorraine. Because my company was positioned in the second
order we could not see anything. It was a huge disappointment. Instead of the formal
parade, a casual visit to the soldiers’ billets and talking to the assembled crowds would
have had an incredible impact, but the military bureaucracy is archconservative.
Otherwise, we trained and prepared for the attack in the West. We were not assigned to
the first wave. With tense anticipation we followed the reports about the first stage of the
attack, the push toward Amiens. Morale was good throughout. The troops at the front
wanted to win. The usual whining about wanting to be in the rear and wanting to be back
home became less prevalent. The professional agitators grew more careful—they had to
be. The rations were sufficient. They were certainly considerably better than at this time
the previous year in the West.
Ludendorff’s decision to attack in 1918 has since been criticized, because in the end it
did not punch through, although there were some initial successes. Ludendorff wanted to
defeat the English and the French before the Americans could be in position at full
strength. He still trusted that the German army had sufficient energy to attack, but not the
necessary strength to defend. This psychologically accurate assessment put him in
agreement with the greatest of military leaders. During the attack there are always some
individuals who propel the fight forward, with the masses following. In the defense, every
individual, the lone fighters as well as the weak masses, must stand alone to maintain the
defense. At this point in the war, most were no longer capable of such an effort.
Furthermore, a tactical turning point had been reached. Up to that point the defensive
systems of barbed wire and machine gun, combined with our innovative defensive tactics,
had always been one step ahead of the enemy, proving superior to even the most
concentrated artillery barrage. With the appearance of large numbers of Allied tanks, the
shifting of the balance of power from the defense to the attack became overwhelming.
Barbed wire and machine guns were becoming obsolete and lost importance by the day.
Countermeasures against the tank were not yet available in the necessary quantities. This
presented an interesting variation in the classical debate about whether the attack or the
defense was the stronger form of warfare. The answer, of course, is that every situation is
different and subject to change. In 1943–1944 the German Army would once again have
to address this key question.
The second major point of criticism about Ludendorff’s offensives is that he
emphasized tactics over the operational level. In other words, he did not want to expend
his energy at an operationally critical location that was tactically strong, but rather he
wanted to break through at a weak point, regardless of the operational value of the
position. In doing so, he then intended to exploit the breakthrough to maneuver on the
operational level. Here, too, Ludendorff may have been right, despite his many notable
critics. What would have been the value of an attack at the operationally correct spot if it
resulted in tactical failure?2
In the Italian province of Veneto, Austrian field marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf
attacked in 1916 and 1917 at the operationally correct spot, the Sette Comuni near Asiago.
He intended to choke off the Venetian Pocket. The operations failed because the Italian
positions were too strong tactically and could not be cracked with the means available.
Ludendorff judged the situation in 1918 intuitively, and not based on dogma or theory.
Armentières
Near Armentières a new battle started on 2 April.3 Operation MICHAEL had forced the
English to shift strong forces to the south. But three weeks later the ground in Flanders
had finally dried out and now was capable of sustaining large-scale attack operations.4 Our
push targeted two Portuguese divisions that had been put into the front line as
replacements for the English forces that had been moved quickly to the south. As the
Portuguese were neither very martially oriented, nor did they necessarily want to die for
England, they were quickly swept away by the German divisions. They came toward us
surrendering in droves, as we in the second wave followed the attacking lead divisions.
We bypassed Armentières initially, as it was totally gassed. We were supposed to wait
until the gas had dissipated, but then suddenly two battalions of the Alpenkorps were
ordered to clear Armentières at gunpoint. The opposition in this case actually consisted of
two of our own labor battalions that were supposed to clear and repair roads. Somehow
they had managed to get into the city and were looting and drinking. There were sixteen
deaths, all of whom had been drinking excessively and now lay dead in the wine cellars.5
Some of the others had gotten into the factories. Almost all of them were wearing female
corsets and tophats and were completely drunk. But the roads and bridges necessary to
move the artillery and the ammunition forward had not been repaired and on the front line
the soldiers were bleeding.
Other than that, the attack crept slowly across the broken terrain of Flanders that was
marked by ditches and isolated farms. But the attack had already exceeded its culminating
point. At the start only about four enemy batteries had been firing at us; a few days later
they had fifty to sixty in action against us.
We were pulled out. For a short time we remained behind the front lines in a protected
position. Everybody was involved in butchering and roasting livestock, and there was
plenty of good wine and one cellar full of champagne. The entrance to the cellar was not
easy to reach because of the heavy traffic in and out, and it quickly came under fire from
English batteries. But not a single battle-hardened veteran could be scared off.
Mount Kemmel
Mount Kemmel lay threateningly on the right flank of the German attack, dominating for
quite a long distance the flat lands to the north and south. Without controlling that high
ground, we could hardly hold the salient we had driven in near Bailleul. The Alpenkorps
was assigned to take it, and during the following days we took up positions on the
outskirts of Lille and reconnoitered the ground. The battle zone was completely torn up.
This was the area of the great 1917 battles in Flanders. Whole villages had disappeared.
Craters lying right next to each other were filled with dark, smelly water. The Ploegsteert
Forest was no longer there. Not a single tree was standing. The entire country was one
huge cemetery. The only thing growing there was barbed wire.
We received our operations order on Rossignol Hill. The objective to our front, Mount
Kemmel, was the dominant terrain feature in Flanders.6 To our right lay Messines Ridge,
torn up by shells. There were no trees, no bushes. Only a few irregular reddish rises
marked the spot where the village of Messines used to stand. We were briefed by the new
first General Staff officer7 of the Alpenkorps, Captain Günther von Kluge.8 He told us,
“This is only a local attack to deny the enemy Mount Kemmel; this is not a decisive
breakthrough attempt.” We were disappointed; we wanted to go to Calais; we wanted to
destroy the enemy at the Yser River, and then take him from behind after we wrested
Mount Kemmel from him.
The next day, 21 April, I was in Lille. I visited the citadel that had been constructed by
Vauban, a masterpiece of the art of fortifications. Many captured English troops were
inside the citadel, handsome looking and strong creatures. I spoke with several of them. In
the past none of them had doubted that the English would be victorious. Now they said,
“England has never been beaten and will not be now. But we also will not be able to beat
the Germans.”
On 23 April we moved forward in squad-sized elements to avoid observation from
Mount Kemmel. It was a beautiful spring day. Since I had spent the whole morning
observing the fall of shot of the enemy’s artillery fire, I managed to get my company
through unscathed. We conducted the relief in place of the frontline infantry, and I was
able to look around the next day. We were closely interlocked with the enemy, sometimes
only a few meters away. My right flank, however, was not tied into another German unit.
While there was little shooting going on during the entire day, around 2000 hours that
evening heavy fire set in, which soon turned into a barrage. Shortly after 2200 smoke
shells came in, followed quickly by machine gun fire and hand grenades. The 6th
Company of the French 30th Infantry Regiment attacked from all sides into my right,
wide-open flank. Holding this piece of terrain was absolutely essential for the security of
the assembly area. I immediately counterattacked with the two platoons that were in
reserve. I saw crouched in a hole the leader of the platoon on the right, Fähnrich Hümme,
who I particularly liked. I gave him a swift kick and shouted, “Get up Fähnrich, no
sleeping here.” But I had kicked a dead body. Standing on the rampart, he had been
leading his platoon’s fight when the lethal bullet hit him.
My counterattack pushed the enemy back. The two platoon leaders of the French
company were both killed, shot in the head. But the enemy still dominated our position
with his machine gun fire. We were pressed for time. In two hours the 10th Reserve Jäger
Battalion was supposed to relieve me, and I still had to reposition to the right. That
required attacking and silencing the irritating French machine guns. Behind me some
trench mortars went into position. I ordered them to fire onto the French machine guns.
The platoon leader refused, saying he had orders not to fire until the actual attack. And
besides… if he opened fire it would draw the enemy’s fire onto his own position. Without
hesitation I drew my pistol. “I will count to three, and then there will be a shot fired either
from your mortar or from my pistol. One, two… .” A mortar shell came crashing down on
the French machine guns. I was now able to accomplish the repositioning without further
hindrance.
On 25 April I was in attack position behind the 1st Company of our battalion. At 0400
the gas attack began. Enraged, the French responded by laying destructive fire onto our
attack positions at the maximum rate of fire. Then the fire started to slack and almost
stopped.
At 0620 our trench mortars started to fire. Looking back I could see the whole horizon
in an ocean of flames.
At 0703 hours I could clearly observe our zone. As a single man the battalion rose and
stormed forward. Over by the 1st Company a machine gun rattled and they started taking
losses. On the left things moved swiftly. Then, the French machine gun in front of the 1st
Company was silenced, and the attack rushed forward like a torrential waterfall. The
Ferme Lindenhoek fell, and French resistance started to collapse. Totally demoralized,
they were either retreating or surrendering. I reached a ravine with my company and
moved around the small Hill 95, where there was still intense resistance. We took it from
behind. The French reserves, just getting ready to counterattack, threw down their rifles
and shouted, “Bons Camarades!” As far as visible to both the left and to the right it was
the same picture. By 1000 hours we had exceeded the day’s objective by one kilometer.
That was strictly prohibited because we had advanced beyond the range of our own
artillery, which was dropping sporadic fire to our rear. On the hilltops along the horizon,
near De Kleit and the Scherpenberg, one could see the fleeing French. Their batteries were
taking off, singly and in groups, leaving abandoned guns everywhere. The enemy
resistance ceased. The breakthrough had succeeded. I reassembled my company and
marched forward singing in column toward De Kleit. Then the halt order reached us.
The company rested in the grass. Without meeting resistance, patrols moved up the
Scherpenberg and toward De Kleit, bringing back cattle for slaughter. Right close to me
stood our commander, Kirchheim, and the commander of the 10th Reserve Jäger
Battalion, Captain Fischer, a 10th Jäger regular officer himself. Kirchheim, a bold,
ingenious frontline soldier, wanted to go forward to the Scherpenberg. Fischer, brilliantly
educated at the tactical level, emphasized the specific prohibition against overreaching the
objective of the day. Our regimental commander was not there. We had no field
communications with anyone, so we stayed where we were. It was not until midday and
the afternoon that elements of the French 3rd Cavalry Division arrived on the decisive
hilltops near De Kleit and the Scherpenberg, and barely closed the wide-open gap in the
Allied lines. We had given away a potentially great operational success.
I have always viewed the Battle of Mount Kemmel as the decisive battle of World War
I. If we had taken advantage of the great tactical success we had gained, and had used it
for a push northward toward Poperinge, we would have gotten into the rear of the Allied
forces there. Pushed against the sea, they would have been totally destroyed. If the enemy
divisions positioned there had been taken out of action, the Allies would have had to
establish a new front line running from St. Omer to Dunkirk. That would have required
them to commit almost all of their remaining reserves. Most likely, it would have been
impossible for Marshal Foch to shift over to a decisive counteroffensive after our next
offensive, and the results consequently would have been unpredictable.9
The Battle of Mount Kemmel and, above all the failed opportunity to exploit that
success, have never let go of me. In 1935, I wrote an article for Militär-Wochenblatt10
about the Battle of Mount Kemmel, based on published documents which had been taken
from the French. Ludendorff had not intended to make a decisive attack. He was playing a
less risky game. He wanted to play it safe and postpone the decisive breakthrough for
later. These were, perhaps, the first indicators of an impending crisis. One only wins
through boldness, especially if everything is on the razor’s edge.11
Almost daily Ludendorff got involved in the detailed preparations for the attack.
Judging from the importance of Mount Kemmel, he suspected closely massed reserves
behind it. Almost daily we heard his telephonic warning, “Taking the mountain will be
easy, and then will come the counterthrust. Therefore, control the artillery tightly, and by
all means reposition the artillery along the line Scherpenberg–De Kleit.”12
This induced our Ia to talk of a limited local attack to take Mount Kemmel from the
enemy. Once the objective for the day had been reached, he wanted to move the artillery
forward and then take the Scherpenberg after another good artillery preparation. But as so
often happens, the real enemy situation presented a different picture. German reserves
were positioned behind Mount Kemmel, and the push of the seasoned regiments of the
Alpenkorps had grown into a breakthrough within a few hours, and nothing but
Ludendorff’s timid carefulness and its incomprehensible effect on the staff of the
Alpenkorps prevented the capture of the decisive high ground and the operational
exploitation of this great tactical success.
A large number of after-action reviews cited the failure to move the artillery forward. It
actually did end up in the wrong place. The attacking units were never assigned a followon objective, at least to the Scherpenberg and De Kleit, or even better, all the way to
Poperinge. Reserve forces had been assembled right behind the Alpenkorps. The leaders
were supposed to be forward near the front line, mounted on horses, in order to keep the
push going and to give it a direction, just as Ludendorff had specified in his regulation on
the offensive battle.13 Elements of the artillery were to be attached to the infantry
regiments right from the beginning and had orders to follow and support. But none of this
ever happened. One mitigating factor for this failure was that the technical level of the
communications at the time worked against flexible leadership on the battlefield—in fact,
actually hampered it significantly. (Later, in 1940, when I was leading a regiment at a
decisive point near Sedan, I had to think of Kemmel.)
We moved into a defensive line behind Kemmel Creek, at the base of the hill. In the
twilight of the early morning the French 39th Infantry Division, without reconnaissance
and in total ignorance of the situation, marched right into our machine gun fire. Their
losses were horrible. The 39th Division had been alerted in Poperinge only at noon on 24
April. As our artillery attempted to bracket the French, it impacted right in the middle of
my company. I was hit along with eight of my Jägers. Shell splinters tore through my right
calf.
Two Jägers brought me back to an aid station dugout. Since the entrance faced the
enemy, my stay there was not very comfortable. As a medic was propping me up right
next to the entrance to help me conduct a certain bodily function, a French shell exploded.
A splinter went straight across the medic’s behind. He dropped me immediately and
bolted. We later covered the dugout entrance with sand bags, but two more times shells
exploded in front of the entrance. Finally, some litter bearers from the medical company
came the following day, strapped me to a stretcher, and off we went. In the middle of the
road in Kemmel Village we were caught by artillery fire. My litter bearers, four fat,
goateed soldiers from the Baden region, left me on the road and disappeared. I lay there
helplessly, strapped to the litter in the middle of the firestorm. When after half an hour the
fire grew weaker, one after another of the fat goatees reappeared from the surrounding
craters. “We never thought you would still be alive, Herr Lieutenant.” I did not either.
After a horrible trip in an ambulance over torn-up roads, I ended up in a field hospital
in Tourcoing. Fully realizing what would happen, I asked to have my personal belongings
that were packed in a rucksack laid by my feet, so I could keep my eyes on them. “But,
Herr Lieutenant, that’s not very comfortable, I will set it right here next to me on the seat.”
Unfortunately, I agreed. I never saw my belongings again. But that was common. Even my
father had his property skillfully stolen in 1914 by some helpful medics after he had been
severely wounded as the commanding general near Warsaw. The only thing I really missed
was a nice, handy edition of Clausewitz. Entertaining oneself during quiet periods on the
battlefield by reading the great philosopher of war produced a strange sense of excitement.
Rest Period
My Jägers had soon figured out where I was and almost daily somebody came by and
updated me. My injury turned out to be not overly severe, and when the battalion was
relieved I sent for my dogcart, packed, told the nurse to give my regards to the physician,
and disappeared. The battalion looked pretty mauled. Holding onto Mount Kemmel had
been a bitter affair, but they had put up a good fight as usual. Although almost all the
officers had been killed or wounded, not a square foot of ground had been relinquished.
The hero of Mount Kemmel was the battalion surgeon of the 10th Reserve Jäger Battalion.
He and a captured English medical NCO had walked the forwardmost lines daily, tending
to the wounded. The Englishman had remained voluntarily. He appeared wherever there
was any action. I can still picture him, a tall, strong man with a red face, red hair, and blue
eyes, sparkling with passion. Eventually we had to turn him over to a POW camp.
The battalion surgeon, Dr. Samuel from Cologne, was a Jew. When the Battle of Mount
Kemmel was over, his commander, Captain Fischer, recommended him for the
Hohenzollerschen Hausorden,14 which he was awarded. “I am an anti-Semite,” said
Fischer to his adjutant, “but I have to be fair.” Dr. Samuel was one of probably only a
handful of Jews who received this high frontline award. I am at least not aware of any
others. After the war we invited Dr. Samuel to our get-togethers. He declined, explaining
that his political convictions were different from ours.
We moved into beautiful quarters in Eine, between Gent and Oudennarde. It was a
smiling, flowering countryside, with red brick houses, green gardens, hedges, and yellow,
ripening grain fields. The Flemish inhabitants received us in a most friendly way. There
were no communications problems between them and our Lower Saxons. “They’re
Germans,” declared our Jägers.
I initially reported for duty in my dogcart, but shortly after I was lifted onto my horse
and finally I was able to manage again. Our 1st Company found a large stock of Burgundy
wine. Dutifully we reported this to the area commander, and the company commander
received three bottles as a finder’s fee. That bothered me. I complained and as a result
every Jäger of my company received four bottles of Burgundy.
The influenza epidemic that was raging in 1918 was a peculiar experience. The 4th
Company, 10th Jägers, never suffered from the flu while we were at the front. But I had a
medical NCO, Sergeant Wehrstadt, who from August 1914 on had participated in every
fight, every battle the battalion was involved in, without ever being wounded or getting
sick. Right before the Battle of Mount Kemmel I sent him on home leave, against his will.
I consciously wanted to spare him. But back in Brunswick he caught the treacherous
disease and died.
Flanders had a lot to offer. Every weekend during our rest period I was able to roam
through its old cities and I had a lot of contact with the people. I wrote into my diary at the
time: “The Flemish are a real German tribe, a little stiff and austere, in a countryside still
completely unpretentious. The cities, however, are very much Francophied. Had the
Belgian government lasted another forty to fifty years, only the old people in the country
would still be speaking Flemish. What will happen now? In my opinion, an independent
Flemish state. It naturally would have to lean toward us, as they are opposed to the French
and the Walloons. In the countryside this idea had a lot of adherents, but the cities were
generally against it. Unfortunately, the countryside never had much influence in Flanders’s
glorious history. The cities set the tone. A German annexation would have been rejected
even in the countryside.”15
In mid-July we attacked near Reims, without success.16 Keeping the attack a secret had
failed. We were supposed to attack fourteen days later in Flanders.17 However, as French
officers who were captured near Reims knew of the day, the hour, and the extent of that
attack, it was postponed. On 30 July we were moved to Tourcoing. On 8 August, the
infamous “Black Day of the German Army,” masses of Allied tanks broke through near
Villers-Bretonneux, east of Amiens.18 We were sent there.
The Turning Point
A war at its climax resembles a boxing match. Both contenders exchange hard punches.
The outcome is uncertain until the last second, until an unexpected punch determines the
outcome of the fight. Villers-Bretonneux was such a punch. It was a coincidence that this
punch was delivered by the Entente armies. It could just as well have been delivered by
us, despite the condition of total exhaustion all of the warring parties found themselves in
by that point.19 That, of course, would have required that we had not relinquished the
initiative as we did at Mount Kemmel. We should have always retained the initiative and
then followed up with strike after strike in order to exploit ruthlessly our initial success
and not give the enemy a break. To what extent that would have been possible can hardly
be judged now, and remains a hypothetical sand table exercise.
The big winners at Villers-Bretonneux were the enemy statesmen, especially French
premier Georges Clemenceau. They had been trying their utmost to maintain the morale of
their peoples and their armies, assuring them that the military, the necessary logistics, and
the manpower were all up to the task. But on the German side there were no longer any
responsible political and civilian agencies providing leadership in this war. The idea that
war has to be led at the political level and would be won at that level never occurred to
them.20
Up to the point of the unfortunate German offensive at Reims, the morale in the army
was good overall. The frontline troops wanted to win and believed in the final victory. The
agitators generally held back. There were, of course, dangerous symptoms. Twice Jägers
in my company declined to take home leave, worrying about coming back with bad
attitudes. It was depressing to hear the troops talk when they came back from leave. On
the military trains agitators went from compartment to compartment, primarily targeting
the officers. After 8 August the dam broke. As I noted in my journal at the time: “Had a
meeting with Major von Wangenheim (10th Jägers). He had the same experience with the
‘courageous’ Saxons as we had. During the counterattack they had shouted out to his
troops, ‘War Prolonger!’ One Saxon yelled ‘Scab’ after one of our sergeants in the train
station at St. Quentin.”
Only the home front could be blamed for this miserable situation. This horrible
defeatism was our demise. Part of the blame, of course, lay with the officers of these units.
But that did not help.
The German lines on the western front pulled back according to plan. A setback like at
Villers-Bretonneux did not happen again. As I wrote in my journal near the end of the war:
“The Entente has conducted these attacks with an incredible expenditure of materiel
(tanks); but that is not the only reason for our defeat. In the past we had managed to deal
with much greater material superiority ratios, and we developed highly effective,
defensive measures against tanks. As a result, they lost their horrific effectiveness against
us.” The real reason had to lie somewhere else. Through the continuous propaganda at
home, enemy agents, and—sad to say—the internal enemy of defeatism our troops
acquired during home leave, their confidence in victory and the justice of our cause was
undermined.21 Enemy propaganda leaflets also had their effect. Often they were very
cleverly designed.
The best German divisions had not borne the brunt of the enemy attack on 8 August.
Those units had been mostly second echelon trench divisions, whose mission it was to
hold the ground that had already been taken by the more hard-hitting attack divisions.22
These lesser quality units had been positioned in exposed terrain under difficult combat
conditions since March. Normally, the leadership of the officers should have overcome
this difficult situation. But even the officers of these divisions were often second rate.
Constant care and the constant example of enduring hardship and discomfort were
missing. Compounding that, our peculiar views on enforcing military discipline had
gradually resulted in no one any longer fearing punishment, which was rarely
administered.
The signs of the creeping disintegration were alarming. The example of the Russian
Revolution had been infectious. Soldiers returning from leave often explained that they
were told in Germany, “It is all your fault. Just quit!” Rigorous intervention against those
who did not want to fight or who engaged in propaganda was lacking. The most severe
legal actions should have been applied against them. For too long those people were
allowed to conduct their underhanded business. But even during this difficult time our
battalion fought with its usual boldness. It never failed. The fighting was especially fierce
around Épehy, where Kirchheim received a well-deserved Pour le Mérite.23
Our Jägers were doubtlessly far superior to the English troops. The latter made a poor
impression. All were extremely young, freshly drafted in England, totally sluggish, tired,
complaining about the conditions in their army, and complaining about the poor food.
Wherever they faced machine gun fire their advance halted. The old, proud Englishmen
were gone for good.24 In one dugout we found the inscription, “Long Live the Irish
Rebels; Down with the English Starvation Army!” Two to three squads of Jägers could
easily defeat the same number of English companies. Nottbohm, who commanded the
14th Reserve Jäger Battalion, which only numbered forty troops, dislodged a fully manned
English battalion from its position.
News of the Austrian peace offer had a bad effect on us. We did not believe in a
negotiated peace. We believed that the war would last until one side broke, and then the
other would be foolish not to take whatever it could.
Near the end of the war I was a member of a court-martial board. Two men from a
recently arrived replacement unit had gone from position to position during an alert saying
that the alert had been cancelled, thus preventing the replacements from going forward.
For years those two had been categorized as indispensable civilian war workers and were
well-nourished laborers from Halle. The court-martial convicted them to prison time,
which they accepted happily. They knew that they would never have to serve their time.
The prosecution had argued for the death penalty, but the verdict of the board was not
unanimous.
Near the end of the war I was standing between two horses when a shell cut one of
them down. As I crawled from under the dead horse, I said: “That would have served
Captain Kirchheim right if I had gotten killed right here.” I had been assigned to the
battalion’s leadership reserve pool because Kirchheim wanted somebody available to
replace him as battalion commander if something happened. Our regimental commander
had assured him that he would not request another replacement for him, and that I would
be the one, despite my youth.
On 23 September the last of our Jägers came out of the front lines. I had made
arrangements for all of them to get baths and I had a table set up with a white tablecloth in
a barn. They were served soup, roast, and dessert. A rear echelon troop stuck his head in
the door and yelled out, “The common man is bleeding at the front and the officers are
dining back here.” He probably had expected a better response to his comment. I often
wondered what happened to him.
About that time we buried Captain Fischer, the commander of the 10th Reserve Jäger
Battalion. He was a marvelous, highly educated soldier. I owed a lot to him from before
the war, when I was still a Fahnenjunker. He was killed standing up at the edge of the
trench, without cover, directing the attack against an English machine gun nest.
A 19 September message from our regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel
Bronsart von Schellendorf, documents the heroic fight that the regiment conducted:
The 10th Jäger Battalion has a strength of 22 Jägers; the 10th Reserve Jäger
Battalion has 32 Jägers. The 14th Reserve Jäger Battalion has a strength of 80 Jägers
and six operational machine guns, excluding the battalion staff. We will try to equip
the remnants of the first two units with three machine guns each. They are to be
combined into one battalion under First Lieutenant Hornbostel.
Therefore, the combat strength of the regiment has been reduced to two Jäger
companies and one machine gun company. Aside from the numerical weakness, the
majority of personnel is no longer combat effective. Approximately only forty men
of the 14th Reserve Jäger Battalion have had four days of rest, the remainder are in a
state of psychological as well as physical exhaustion, the likes of which I have not
seen in this war.
Signed
Bronsart von Schellendorff
Even the enemy acknowledged us. One of the leaflets dropped on us read: “Members of
the Alpenkorps, please start defecting like everybody else!”
Back to the Balkans
Replacements, machine guns, horses, and equipment arrived. The Alpenkorps was loaded
up rapidly with orders to be prepared to conduct battalion-size operations immediately
upon off-loading. Wild rumors floated around. Our potential destination ranged from
Archangel to the Caucasus Mountains, to Salonika. Finally, we were on the train rolling on
old, familiar routes toward the Balkans. Machine gun training, machine gun zeroing,
reorganizing the company, all had to be done on the moving train. We even conducted live
fire exercises during the long halts in Hungary. We emplaced one machine gun in front of
the locomotive to prevent the train from leaving without us. We knew Hungary and its
railroad system all too well. When we were past Belgrade and approaching Niš we started
to feel more secure. We quickly forgot the western front as the beautiful country stretched
before us. At more than a hundred meters you could not distinguish between a pig and a
sheep. Both were the same size and had the same dark wool on their backs. They only
tasted different.
Bulgaria had collapsed and the Bulgarian Army came rolling back home, aimlessly
pillaging throughout the country. This signified the end, but even the end requires hard
discipline, courage, prudence, and gumption from the highest general down to the lowest
supply clerk. Otherwise everything ends in a gruesome catastrophe and unnecessary
casualties, as happened to the Austrian Army in the Veneto.
When we entered Niš there were two trains loaded with clothing halted at the station.
Our 2nd Company was detailed to guard them. Two Bulgarian companies in the area
intended to seize the two trains and their contents and take them to Bulgaria. The situation
was just at the point of breaking into a fire-fight when the Bulgarians decided to withdraw
as more German troops arrived.
Bulgarian Collapse
The battalion reassembled in Mramor, ten kilometers south of Niš. Bulgaria as a country
had collapsed. German and Austrian forces were assembling in the Niš–Pirot area in order
to reorganize the German and Austrian units and to secure the southern border of AustriaHungary.
The situation was unstable. Gangs and individual deserters were everywhere, and one
prisoner claimed to be a Serbian soldier. The Bulgarian troops hardly wore uniforms
anymore. They had resigned and accepted the inevitable. The young women and girls
from the villages ran into the cornfields and hid there. They knew how wars were fought
in the Balkans. The Bulgarians pillaged the whole country, rounding up all the cattle and
piling the harvest into carts. What we came across there was unfathomable.
The new German High Command25 ordered us to take all of the loot from the
Bulgarians. We could not fight a war in a plundered land. The order was to collect up all
the grain and to return all of the cattle to the local Serbian farmers. The Bulgarians were
allowed to take only their assigned vehicles with them. My company established a bridge
checkpoint at the Morava River, where I was supposed to control everything that crossed.
As dawn was breaking on 5 October, a wandering mass of people started coming toward
us. Near the front of the group a Bulgarian supply officer led one hundred carts filled with
grain. Trying to negotiate, he took me aside and pulled back the canvas cover on one
wagon with a dozen beautiful girls. He offered them to me if I would let him pass through
with the rest of his wagons. Shaking his head, he moved along without his carts and only
his bordello wagon. He just could not understand the world anymore.
Wagon upon wagon followed. Herds of looted cattle were pulled out of the line and not
allowed to cross the bridge. Then came a column of fifty prisoners, each one shackled to a
long chain with an iron ball. Gasping, they carried their heavy loads in their arms as they
trudged forward. A Bulgarian officer came marching along amid large herds of cattle,
carrying a gnarly cane. He was a former Chetnik.26 With his long curls falling down to his
shoulders and a huge beard reaching down to his belt, he was the very picture of a
patriarch right out of the Old Testament. He hugged me and kissed me, as I was enveloped
by a repugnant smell of garlic. The valiant Jäger standing next to me probably thought that
he wanted to eat me, as my head disappeared in the huge beard. He threw himself between
us with the courage of desperation. Even Jonah escaping the mouth of the whale could not
have been happier and more relieved than I was.
We did finally reach an agreement. He was allowed to move on with one wagon and a
few heads of cattle. Gratefully, he gave me a photograph of himself during his younger
years in the Macedonian dress of a Chetnik, the belt stuffed with daggers and pistols. In
his left hand he held an infantry rifle and his right hand casually rested on a few severed
Turkish heads. It was a souvenir of the only man who ever kissed me.
On 6 October we marched southward with orders to deny the enemy a sector in the
Jasjaza Planina. Masses of people moved toward us, with cattle herds following more
cattle herds. To keep things simple we just let the Serbs have them. At that point only the
horses and mules were of any interest to us. We confiscated all the mounts of a Bulgarian
troop. That evening we moved into Prokuplje.
Mounted Jägers
On 7 October we reached the top of the pass at Jasjaza Planina, where I was supposed to
block the enemy. The terrain was favorable, deforested, and dotted with a number of
charcoal makers’ huts. Made from freshly cut fir trunks, they were round, with a fire
burning in the middle and the smoke escaping through the top. Several other companies
were positioned to my right and left, several kilometers away, but we were not in direct
contact. I had a mountain machine gun detachment under my control, giving me almost
twenty machine guns. I kept tight control of everything in a large perimeter. Unfortunately,
I was supposed to detach and move forward one platoon under an officer by the name of
Lieutenant Wohlers to Zitni Potnuk, which was twelve kilometers away.
“Herr Lieutenant, can we ride? We have horses enough.” Excited voices pressured me
from all sides.
“All right then, but… .” They all stormed toward the captured Bulgarian horses and my
happy troops rode off as “mounted Jägers.” I rode along with them and made sure they
were quartered in an isolated farm that was easy to defend. But I did not feel very
comfortable as I rode back to my base position. The mood was too upbeat; but Lieutenant
Wohlers was well tested and reliable.
It was noon the next day when I saw them again… but without the horses. The night
had been quiet, and that morning they had mounted up. Unfortunately, a Serbian squadron
approached them. The Bulgarian horses threw up their heads, whinnied, and took off
toward the Serbian horses. It was too much. My Jägers jumped off the small Bulgarian
horses, and once they had firm ground under their feet again they felt more stable. They
grabbed their rifles and fought their way back to my position without losses. Wohlers had
led brilliantly, calmly, and prudently. He was a farmer’s son from Lower Saxony.
Serbs, Chetniks, and Old Wives
We made preparations to receive the anticipated attack from the Serbian squadron. We
made our position appear dead, and we wanted them to come in right on top of us. But we
noted many old women that were collecting wood in the forest. They came and they
disappeared.
Then dismounted Serb riflemen started crawling carefully toward us. They knew
exactly where we were. The old women had done their job perfectly. We had to play a
different game, then. I ordered the troops to make a lot of noise that night. But the next
morning all was deathly quiet one hour before dawn. Everyone was hidden. Then a single
one of my machine guns started firing, and shortly after the crew one by one came running
back to the main position across the pass. When the Serbs started shooting at them, my
troops dropped the gun and bolted. That was too much for the Serbs. Shouting “Zivio,
Zivio” from all sides, quixotic figures jumped up and stormed forward, swinging their
rifles and pistols over their heads. Then my twenty machine guns opened up. After that
encounter they left us alone.
During the following days the Alpenkorps withdrew toward the north. I had to remain
in close contact with the enemy, hanging far back in the column. There was shooting all
around us, as the old women continued to collect wood, even at night and on completely
desolate hilltops. Below us, enthusiastic shouting broke out whenever the Serbian cavalry
moved into the liberated villages. That night I received a blinker-light signal, “Is
Lieutenant Balck there? What is the enemy doing?” I replied, “Lieutenant Balck is here!
Enemy is doing fine.” Days later I met up with our brigade commander, General Karl von
Kleinhenz. “There you are,” he said. “I have to thank you. It was a horrible situation.
Everything was in flux. The division did not have contact with any of its elements and
then came your blinker signal, ‘. . . enemy is doing fine.’ Now, if elements that far forward
still have that much of a sense of humor left, then everything is in order.” General Ludwig
von Tutschek, the Alpenkorps divisional commander, also got a good laugh out of the
message.
The Serbs followed us very carefully. Our disengagement had worked. Then in Kaonik
on 14 October as we were in a deathlike sleep: “Alarm, 1st and 4th Companies
immediately back into forward position!” In a pitch-black night on a miserable path I
found the area where we were supposed to go. I coordinated the location with the 1st
Company, a house where their left flank post would be and where we could maintain
contact. I positioned the platoons I had with me and then rode off to link up with another
of my platoons; but when I got to where they were supposed to be, nobody was there. I
searched and searched. Nothing. I rode farther on, but still nothing. In the twilight of the
rising moon I saw three individuals in a clearing. I rode toward them, but then shots rang
out. That clearly was the wrong address. I then started riding along a path where my
people should have marched, but almost immediately I was shot at by a Serbian patrol.
After an endless search I rode back to where I had left the rest of the company… and they
were all there. The platoon I had been looking for had gone around in a circle and ended
up again with the rest of the unit.
Just as I had resolved that one, another problem popped up. The blinker signal said,
“Immediately make contact with battalion!” Meyer, my relentless messenger, ran back. He
returned two hours later with the field kitchen. Suddenly the blinker signal stopped and we
had no more communications. Once again I had to send Meyer back to the battalion
command post. Angry, hungry, but still driven by his sense of duty, Meyer disappeared
back into the night. But when he reached the village where the battalion staff had been
located, it was empty. Finally, he found the battalion adjutant, Lieutenant Hinze, who told
him, “You’re supposed to move your company back to Kruševac immediately. Inform the
1st Company too.”
“Yes, Sir! I would like to point out, though, that I may just collapse on the way back. I
have been on my feet forever.”
“Can you ride a horse?”
“Yes, Sir!” Actually, Meyer did not know how to ride.
“Orderly, dismount! Okay, Meyer, get on it and good luck.”
But his boots hardly fit into the stirrups. So on foot again, with two men escorting him,
Meyer staggered back to my position.
“Back to Kruševac,” he told me. “There are no friendly forces in front of us anymore.”
“Now, where exactly is Kruševac?”
“I have no idea either, somewhere back there toward the left.”
As I formed up the company, the brave Oberjäger Kuenstel took off by himself into the
Serbian night and wilderness, moving out with his rifle at the ready. Meyer and I moved
toward the 1st Company to inform them. We were shot at along the way, but the 1st
Company was nowhere to be found. Somewhere in the direction of Kruševac we could
hear dogs barking. Was that where the 1st Company was? I had to make a decision. I rode
back to my company and got them marching. We could not stay there until daybreak. I
also could not leave anyone behind. Together with Meyer, I followed the rear of the
company column.
After a while I halted the company and stepped into a building to check my map. It
appeared that we were going in the right direction. But after we started moving again I lost
track of Meyer. He had been with us at the last halt. Had he fallen out? At the pace we
were keeping, it would have been no wonder. I halted the company and rode back calling,
“Meyer, Meyer!” After a while I thought I heard a weak voice calling in the night: “Hallo,
4th Company?”
When I finally found him I said, “Meyer, where have you been? I have been looking
for you all night.”
“I have been waiting in the village for you, sir.”
“Sure you were, and you fell asleep, right?”
I finally had everybody back together. At dawn we crossed the Morava near Kruševac
and moved into positions on both ends of Jasika. The 1st Company had fallen behind and
did not arrive until twenty-four hours later. They had to fight their way through the
Chetniks and the Serbs. About that time the news we received from the home front was
horrible. We listened to U.S. President Wilson’s peace proposals and all became very
quiet.
We dug new positions. There was plenty of meat in the countryside and the grapes were
plentiful. The late summer weather was marvelous, but we did not take much notice of the
beauty of the Serbian landscape, with its beech forests spread out like an English park.
Although there was shooting everywhere, we suffered hardly any losses as long as we kept
close control of everything. Occasionally, however, carelessness led to some unpleasant
incidents. The pack animals that were bringing food for one company of a battalion of the
Alpenkorps were attacked by women and children. Because of the heat, the animal guides
had left their weapons in their nearby quarters and consequently could not defend
themselves. The old wives disappeared into the forests with the pack animals and all the
guides’ clothing. Instead of the expected noon meal, twelve naked guides showed up at
their unit. There clearly was a shortage of textiles in the Balkans.
We had no reliable intelligence about the enemy at this time, and therefore we had to
take some prisoners. I was supposed to raid Kruševac, which lay in our sector of the front
line. Reconnaissance had determined that such a raid was feasible. Replacements arrived,
third-rate troops who had spent the entire war back at home where they had been assigned
to X Corps. Along their way to the front they had raised red flags and had fired off all their
ammunition. They arrived at noon. I made sure they were given a good meal. I allowed
them to mingle with my troops for a while, and then I had them fall into a formation. I
addressed them, “Tonight we will raid Kruševac and you are coming along!” Then I talked
to them individually. From that moment on there were no more problems. They fought just
like everyone else. The spirit of the Jäger had infected them quickly. I had not really
needed them on the raid, but it was an old rule. Replacements were only valuable once
they had been blooded.
We forded the Morava during the night and entered the town of Kruševac from two
sides. The well-seasoned Feldwebel Falcke from the 1st Company captured a guard post.
Our prisoner was not supposed to be a Chetnik, but a regular Serbian soldier. Once we had
him we started heading back with no further complications. Except for the minor glitches
that are common in such situations, everything had gone according to plan. I had broken
off the operation at just the right time, before the enemy could initiate any counter actions.
The whole thing had come off much to the frustration of my adventurous Jägers, who were
still suspecting that there was an entire Serbian battery in the barracks at Kruševac.
On 22 October we resumed our withdrawal. The marvelous, mild late summer weather
was replaced by cold and intense fall rain. We broke contact with the enemy by marching
in a single day the incredible distance of more than sixty kilometers in the rain, over
inhospitable mountain terrain, and on even more impossible paths. Again and again our
rear guard elements skirmished with the increasingly aggressive Chetniks who were
lurking everywhere. To give our pack animals some relief, we had loaded all of our
supplies onto ox carts, the unfailing transportation mode of the Balkans. The only thing
we had to remember was to give them time to chew their cuds, otherwise they would drop
on us. But we were well experienced in the ways of the Balkans.
Once again my company was ordered to form the advance guard. The pouring rain was
icy cold. We were happy to find some shelter from the rain in several pigsties along the
route. We spent that night standing up and leaning against each other. Sitting down or even
laying down in that filth was out of the question, despite our exhaustion. At dawn I
received a blinker signal: “Back to Belgrade!” The company moved alone through the
mountains. We could see neither enemy nor friendly forces. On 1 November the 4th
Company, 10th Jäger Battalion, was the last German unit to cross the railroad bridge over
the Sava River. We blew the bridge behind us. The Alpenkorps reassembled on the parade
field at Semlin. I was able to slip into a horse track with my company. Laying next to me
on the straw was the commander of the Bavarian Life Guards Regiment, Colonel Franz
von Epp.27
Back through Hungary
By 1 November the divisions that had been pulled together to secure Hungary’s southern
border were of relatively poor quality. They mostly came from Romania and southern
Russia. An Austrian officer from an adjacent division to our right, which swiftly
disappeared to the rear, told me that one of the divisions had once been first-rate. The 9th
Jäger Battalion had been in the Ukraine for a year and was now thoroughly infected with
Bolshevik ideas. They no longer had any combat value. The adjacent 219th Division to
our left was not much better.
That night I went one more time to the “Black Cat,” a famous German guesthouse in
Semlin. It claimed to serve the best wines between Vienna and the Black Sea. I
remembered it from when I was there in 1915. The wines were still first class, but there
was a lot of excitement. Croatia had declared independence. The ethnic Germans of
Semlin, who were quite numerous, quickly repainted their German business signs in
Croatian.
On 2 November we reached the Serbian village of Old Pazua. I was able to billet my
entire company there only by force. Our field army headquarters had been out of
communications with OHL for four days, and nobody knew what was going on. There was
no mail service. There were rumors of a railroad strike in Hungary. What was going to
happen next was a total mystery. Thank God the most maddening rumors did not become
reality. It did appear that Germany had yielded to Wilson in all points. It was disgusting to
think that our democratic politicians were now saying that they had to shoulder the guilt
and the collapse of the old system. Why did the old system collapse in the first place?
Only because some idealists and unscrupulous, overambitious people exploited the
predicament of the government, which did not have a strong leader. The more severe the
collapse, the greater the upheaval.
On 3 November there were indicators of total collapse. Austrian soldiers walked
around without the national cockade on their caps, but with blue, white, and red ribbons
instead. Numerous prisoners—Italians, Serbs, and Romanians—had been released by the
new Croatian state. There was shooting everywhere. The country had gone crazy.
On 4 November we crossed the Danube near Neusatz-Peterwarden. Citizen militias
were everywhere, and for some unknown reason they were constantly shooting in the air.
From the latest newspapers we learned that the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer
existed. Both states of the new federation had reached an armed truce with the Entente.
Judging from the conditions that the former Danubian monarchy and Turkey received, it
looked damned little like rapprochement to us. Would this open eyes in our delusional
homeland?
On 5 November we were subordinated to Mackensen’s army group. We were supposed
to fight our way back to Germany, together with the divisions returning from Romania. In
the Serb village of Bekices our quartermasters were ambushed and stripped of everything.
The regimental ordnance officer, Lieutenant Burandt, had led them well and fearlessly
under difficult conditions against a superior force. For one last time the battalion
developed the situation, as long lines of riflemen advanced toward Bekices, our bayonets
reflecting the setting sun. The battle was short and intense. During the night we
interrogated all the inhabitants and learned that we were in an allied country after all. A
few criminals that had escaped from a prison in Budapest had established a regime of
terror in Bekices. They beat to death the local mayor and a few of the dignitaries and
disarmed everybody. We took care of them properly. In the next villages we reached the
inhabitants welcomed us with white flags, bread, and salt.
The area we were moving through on 6 November had a peculiar ethnic mix of peoples
that had flowed in after it had been depopulated during the Turkish wars. There were very
few ethnic Hungarians. Communism seemed to be the order of the day. All the cattle in
the village had been herded together and redistributed.
On 7 November the pending armistice was announced in the West. Our mood was quite
gloomy, even though the situation was inevitable. On 9 November an Austro-Hungarian
artillery regiment was disarmed at the entrance of East Beseke. Every civilian was armed.
Nobody, not even the ethnic Germans, wanted to billet our troops. The only way we
accomplished that was to move toward the doors with loaded weapons.
We marched to East-Verbacs on 10 November. It was a dismal, foggy day, which
matched our mood. The Kaiser and the crown prince had abdicated. The German fleet had
mutinied. Kiel, Wilhemshaven, and Hamburg were occupied by the mutineers, and armed
sailors were moving into Oldenburg, Hannover, and Magdeburg. The garrison in
Hannover supposedly was still resisting the mutineers. So this was the grand finale. There
was revolution in Munich, and workers’ and soldiers’ councils everywhere. Typically
enough, the troops who had not done any of the fighting for four and a half years were the
ones now making revolution. If a good portion of the army resisted the storm, everything
would not yet be lost. The present poison had to be eradicated. The core of the German
people was healthy enough to overcome the disease.
Billeting the troops caused all kinds of problems, even though the village was inhabited
by ethnic Germans. Nobody wanted to house our troops, even in the pigsty. Only force
could make the locals change their minds. The local people were saying to themselves,
“The war is lost. We do not want to have anything to do with you.” The uncertain future
weighed heavily on them.
We read in the Hungarian newspapers about the negotiations between Mihály Károlyi,
the new Hungarian political star, and the French commander, Franchet d’Espery. Károlyi
was treated like a shoeshine boy. We quietly gloated over that.
The Alpenkorps was still holding together on 11 November. Only a few of the troops
were trying to get home on their own, mostly farmers who were worried about their
property. The Hungarians wanted to intern us. A Hungarian captain in St. Tomacs claimed
to be selling exit visas to Germany. A few troops in the Saxon Division fell for the scam.
After twenty kilometers they were pulled from the train, robbed, and interned. Then the
Hungarian propaganda campaign kicked off: the Serbs supposedly were arriving today; all
of the staff officers supposedly had gotten away in cars. The intent was to destroy the
morale of the German troops by any means. But my soldiers were amazing. I was
absolutely sure of them, and the situation in the other Jäger companies was similar.
Everyone in St. Tomacs was actually expecting the Serbs. Serb banners, Serb flags, flower
bouquets were prepared for the liberators. The local militia acted rather arrogantly.
The abdication of the Kaiser left our troops relatively unfazed. He was too far removed
from them as a person. As a leader of his people he had been too detached. The people
yearned for strong leadership, however. The Kaiser can be blamed for not providing that
for his people, which is what did him in at the end.
On 12 November the Alpenkorps started to march to Silesia, a movement planned to
last twenty-four days. The first night we were billeted in Obesce. As usual, I was going
through the billets with my first sergeant, the marvelous, short, wiry Sitte, when a woman
blocked Sitte’s path with a dung fork. Her husband joined her, carbine in hand. I knocked
him down with the butt of my pistol and grabbed his rifle. Sitte grabbed the dung fork, but
he slipped and fell into a deep dung pit. Like Neptune from the waves, he reappeared with
trident in hand from the horrible bath. Militia quickly appeared to help, but our Jägers
were also right there and the tense situation quickly passed. Only Sitte remained dripping
and foul smelling in the middle of a bunch of laughing Jägers.
On 13 November we refused a summons to turn in our weapons. From the latest
newspapers we learned that all the dynasties had abdicated, but there were no major
disturbances. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were everywhere and OHL had offered its
loyalty to the new government. But under the existing armistice conditions Germany
would quickly approach famine conditions. The country’s situation was never more
serious. Famine would lead to bloody anarchy. Every decent German would now have to
commit himself to the cause of law and order, no matter who was the head of the
government, whether Liebknecht, Ledebour, Ebert, or Scheidemann.
The worldwide revolution supposedly took a hold of the Entente powers. Would world
communism be our savior in the end? In all reality I believe that we still do not fully
understand our era. Something big was happening here. You could actually feel it, but at
the same time not really understand it. A new epoch in world history was about to start.
15 November was a rest day in Zenta, the place where Prince Eugene of Savoy had
beaten the Turkish army decisively.28 Our regimental commander had issued the order for
each company to elect a council of trusted members. Our marvelous Jägers refused
unanimously to support such an undertaking. The battalion was steadfast in its attitude.
Nobody wanted that kind of change.
We reached Magyarkanizsa on 16 November. Looking at the power of the nobility from
the middle ages to today, there is a pattern of powerful rulers in quick succession that
elevate the power of their state by competing with their peers. The peak of this
development was reached during the era of the absolute monarchs, Frederick the Great,
Louis XIV, Charles XII, etc. After that, the individual power of the monarchs declined
because of the lack of superior personalities. As time progressed, royalty increasingly
struggled with their populace over the preservation of the crown’s privileges. What we had
in the end were no longer real kings. The great European revolution made obvious what
had already happened internally.
On 19 November we moved out of Szegedin. In the end, the firm resolve of the
Alpenkorps to force its way out if necessary paid off. But then came a really difficult hour
when we had to leave our most faithful comrades behind, our horses and mules. For years
we had taken good care of them and had pampered them through snow and ice, through
barrages, the Alps, and the flatlands, while they always served us faithfully. Now we had
to hand them off to the Hungarians for next to nothing. Every so often a shot rang out
whenever a pack animal guide could not bear to see his horse in strange hands. We were
allowed to take only sixteen horses with us; more than six hundred remained behind. It
had been my plan to ride back to Germany with all of the battalion’s horses. There were
enough Jägers that had volunteered to ride along, but the first General Staff officer of the
Alpenkorps, Captain Reitzenstein, advised against it. He was concerned that the
Hungarians might refuse to give passage to the animals if we had to commandeer their
fodder along the way. I knew Reitzenstein as a man of action. There was a special bond of
trust between us, and I followed his advice.
We squeezed into just a few freight cars and then we started moving. Then we stopped
and received a telegram from the Hungarian minister of war: “Continuation of transport
only guaranteed if battalion fights against the Czechs.”
We answered: “Will fight, but only against Hungary.” The train immediately started
moving again.
In Pressburg29 the station commander wanted to disarm us. For the last time, the troops
of the battalion picked up their rifles, occupied the train station, and detained everyone
that was armed. The bitterness of our soldiers could hardly be curbed. The Czechs
threatened us with an armored train, which they did not have. When they saw how mad
our troops were they sent a telegram to their war ministry. The answer came back within
five minutes: “Move them along immediately!” Twenty minutes later the train was on its
way.
Flawless order ruled in Austria, fortunately.
On 23 November we crossed the Bavarian border near Salzburg and deloused in
Rosenheim. The red cockade and the red gorget of a Feldwebel with the inscription
“Soldiers’ Council” were the only signs of change. Whenever our soldiers glared at those
characters, they disappeared. We apparently were not welcome around there either.
Otherwise, there was commendable order everywhere. The enlisted soldiers acted
absolutely correctly toward the officers. Our first impression was that except for the red
cockades nothing had changed in Germany.
On 25 November at 2000 hours our train arrived at the Goslar train station. We had
expected to be met by the commander of the 1st Battalion, Major von Pappenheim.
Instead, the Soldiers’ Council was there. Kirchheim did not even look at those people. He
ordered us to get off the train, and in old-fashioned order and firm attitude the battalion
marched into its beloved old garrison town. The streets were mobbed with cheering
people. It was quite different from what we had expected. The mayor greeted us in front of
the town hall, delivering a lackluster speech appropriate for the times. What else could he
say? And then we moved into badly prepared and sparse quarters, with no tables, no
chairs, and no lights.
6
Retrospective on World War I
Before I continue with my memoirs, I would like to take a look back on World War I. For
years I have been occupying myself with the analysis of its problems. I have read almost
all of the literature foreign and domestic. The thinking of today is considerably different
from our thoughts, our feelings, and our awareness in 1918.
Could we have continued the war? Contrary to our feelings then, today this question
has to be answered with a clear “No.” After the collapse of our allies the southern flank of
the Reich was unprotected. The forces necessary to use against our newly emerging
enemies were not available in the right numbers.1 The loss of the Romanian oil fields was
decisive. The lack of fuel would have forced a halt to the war by March 1919 at the latest.
That was not sufficient time to achieve a military decision—not even if it had been
possible to reestablish discipline in the army and on the home front. Even though the
French, the English, and the Italians were in a similar state of exhaustion, Germany was at
a turning point. Our morale inevitably would have declined, even after a short, possible
improvement, because of the increasingly dire situation regarding materiel and having to
fight the war on our own territory. In contrast, the morale of the Entente powers would
have improved through rising expectations. Compounding all that was the unbroken
power of the American Army. Nor did we have effective antitank weapons in sufficient
numbers.
OHL [Oberste Heeresleitung] has been blamed for advising the government of the
necessity of concluding an armistice in a hasty and totally unprepared manner. This charge
shows a total ignorance of the nature of war. Only the events of the “Black Day” of 8
August exposed for friend and foe alike the true state of the German Army. The situation
required very fast action, which Ludendorff accomplished in an objective manner, without
consideration for embellishing his own legacy. This fast and decisive step saved the
substance of the Reich and Germany from Bolshevism. A continued muddling through,
which is all that could have followed, would have led inevitably to a total collapse. With a
sense of responsibility and a correct assessment of the situation, a decision of rare
significance had been made. The fact that the civilian authorities were surprised and
unprepared was the consequence of a total lack of teamwork. The Kaiser, the soldiers, and
the civilian authorities were all equally guilty for the results.
The Stab-in-the-Back Legend
Few things have excited the German public to this day as much as the so-called Stab-inthe-Back legend surrounding the revolution that started in Germany that November.
Depending on one’s political perspective, the events of November 1918 are used to
discredit the political opposition, whether on the left or on the right. Objectivity has no
place in this process. Allow me to clarify a few facts here:
1. The so-called revolution had no effect on the outcome of the war. The war was lost.
The revolution did, however, weaken Germany’s position at the negotiating table. At
the Allied War Council meeting of 25 October 1918 Foch, Pétain, Haig, and Pershing
were willing to offer Germany reasonable conditions because they too were at the
end of their strength. After 9 November, such concessions were no longer necessary.
2. The so-called Stab-in-the-Back was carried out by the independent social democratic
movement. It started in 1917 with their backing of the naval uprising. For many far
left-leaning elements, the cause for the war against Russia had disappeared with the
collapse of the authoritarian tsarist regime. On the contrary, they now viewed the new
Russia as a political ally and an accessory in the communist world revolution. The
USPD [Independent Social Democratic Party] actually specifically took credit for the
“Stab-in-the-Back.” The managing editor of their journal, a Herr Thomas from
Augsburg, stated during an election campaign rally of the USPD in Munich, “The
‘Stab-in-the-Back’ against the German front was the luckiest ‘Stab-in-the-Back’ of
the revolutionary proletariat.”
3. The Social Democrats, and specifically Ebert, had nothing to do with the “Stab-inthe-Back.”
4. A stab in the back requires two parties, one that does the stabbing and one that allows
himself to be stabbed.
What was it, then, that led to the tragic events of November 1918? In 1914 the German
people had entered into the struggle for their future with incredible enthusiasm. The
German people completely embraced the words of the Kaiser: “There are no political
parties anymore, there are only Germans!” Everyone gave his best. Incidents where a
mortally wounded German soldier would say something like, “I am dying for Germany,
even though I am a Social Democrat,” occurred frequently. I myself witnessed such in
1915 at the Rawka River. When at the end of August 1914 a Jäger had to be disciplined
for an infraction, the loudly proclaimed opinion of his fellow Jägers was, “How can you
commit such an offense in times like these?” The thinking of our upper leadership circles
ran something like: “The German people are basically sound. We will not be able to avoid
initiating a few reforms after the war, but for now everything has to remain the way it is.
And besides, our administration is clean, good, and just.”
Nobody seemed to recognize that a psychological high is naturally followed by a low,
despite Schiller’s old adage that “Enthusiasm is not a herring that can be preserved for a
hundred years.” When I talked to my father long before the beginning of the war about the
necessity of enthusiasm in war he opined: “The enthusiasm is over after the first bivouac
in a rainstorm. More important are a sense of duty, political attitude, warrior spirit, and
esprit de corps.”
Thus, nothing was done by the government. The only thing that happened was that
judicial decisions were as lenient as possible, based on the rationale that the German
people were so good. By the time everyone realized to their horror that the everyday
reality was quite different, it was too late. What should have been done at all costs was to
appoint a Social Democrat to one of the Reich ministries and introduce voting rights in
Prussia. The people had a right to that much. But the Kaiser and the leaders of the Prussian
administration were not willing to take such extraordinary steps. They assumed that since
they governed matter-of-factly, caringly, and equitably, obedience was to be expected in
return. They did not take into consideration the idea that when people have reached a
certain level of political sophistication, this would not be enough anymore. One only
accepts the state as one’s own when one can participate according to one’s abilities and
has access to all state functions. The knights of the Teutonic Order experienced the
indicators of such realities as early as the days of the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. They
had the best administration in medieval Europe, but the fact that they were outsiders could
not prevent the local Prussian nobility and the Bürgers from changing their allegiance to
the Polish king in hopes of being able to govern their own country under Polish rule.
Thus, the disaster of 1918 ran its course. A Clemenceau or a Lloyd George could have
never made it in Germany. For legal reasons and to protect the immunity of the members
of the Reichstag, the decision was made not to act against agitators of the ultra left,
although they had only one objective, the foreign policy downfall of the German people.
Immunity gave them the cover for any kind of agitation without risk.
The agitation of the far left was mostly directed against a pillar of the regime, the
German officer corps. That such was unwarranted among the frontline troops is proven by
the high blood toll paid by the active and reserve officer corps and the inner strength that
almost all frontline troops maintained until the end. The rear areas were naturally more
fertile ground for agitation. It cannot be denied, however, that in the final years before the
war a certain jeunesse dorée (“gilded youth”) element began to enter the officer ranks.
They did not pursue an officer’s career because of a calling, but rather because of social
ambitions. This shift inside the officer corps is best described in a remark by Kirchheim:
“When I went to Southwest Africa twelve years ago, the social events within the officer
corps were geared toward the least well-off family. When I came back they were geared
toward the richest.”
But this rot was relatively small and still without influence. What was worse was the
attitude of a peace obligation that crept into the field, where it did not belong. Many
higher staffs set poor examples here.
Naturally, rations played a large role in the agitation. But it was less the irregularity of
the meals, but rather the constant sameness that the field kitchens produced. This problem
was not recognized properly. Wherever the officers avoided the constant mass-produced
mush, there was discontent; where the officers ate from the field kitchen, there was no
sense of revolution. Whenever possible or at regular intervals, I ensured everyone had
cooked rations. No German soldier will turn against an officer who shares his joy and
pain, death and danger.
The influence of the senior leadership at the general officer level strongly deteriorated
during the war. The soldier in the hour of danger wants to see his general. Then he will
follow him blindly. But the leadership was technologically tied to the telephone. Wireless
communication was still in its infancy. Consequently, the general in order to avoid losing
control was tied to his phone in the rear, much to his chagrin. The enemy propaganda
called Hindenburg “Hintenburg.”2 Schlieffen’s concept of the commander communicating
by phone from the rear was compatible with the technological level of the time, but
psychologically it was a grave mistake. Guderian was the first to tear the commanders
away from the phone when wireless radio had reached the necessary capabilities.
A further reason for the decline in the credibility of the generalship among the troops
was Ludendorff’s habit of passing orders through the General Staff. How often did one
hear the question, “Who is in charge of this division?”
The answer: “Captain So-and-So of the General Staff.”3
“And, the division commander?”
“An old man who has no influence.”4
Sometimes the opinions were even more critical. In all fairness, I must say that even
though I heard such comments often, I never met a General Staff officer who said such
things himself, and who tried to marginalize his commander for his own glory.5 But the
General Staff system as it was used by Ludendorff and all of his subordinates robbed the
German Army of one of its main pillars of support. But this consequence was probably not
at all clear to those involved in it. The German General Staff system had its origins in
earlier times, when many generals were brave cavaliers and noblemen who needed a
strong support system.6
Some leaders also believed that the army was the tool of choice against riots and other
civil disturbances. All the troops should have to do is appear on the scene with shoot-tokill orders, and everything would be back to normal. An army of conscripts simply cannot
be used against the people during a popular uprising, especially in time of war when that
army represents the full range of society’s political groupings and the older age groups.
This understanding gained during the Revolution of 1848 had been lost. Those leaders
who relied on the admirable German discipline were taken completely by surprise when
the 2nd Guards Division and other elite units refused to act against the people.
Ignorance and carelessness of our ruling circles, holding on to their privileges, and the
stubborn trust in the authoritarian state and the discipline of the army made the Stab-inthe-Back possible. And thus, the murder victim himself can be blamed.
War and Politics
Wars are lost on the political level; but the soldier bears the brunt.
In 1805 incompetent politics missed the alliance with Austria and Russia and in 1806
led an isolated Prussia to Jena, without a chance against the victor of Austerlitz. Nobody
criticized the politicians then, but tons of dirt were heaped upon the officer corps that had
done all of the bleeding leading up to Jena and Austerlitz. It took one hundred years before
Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz was able to rehabilitate the reputation of the officer
corps of that era.7 At Tannenberg in 1410 the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order and
eleven out of twelve of the knights grand cross were killed in the battle. This pattern
repeats itself throughout history. It is no wonder, then, that the German officer corps
developed its own way of thinking. The natural gap between the war fighter and politician
deepened accordingly.
Prussian politics were especially depressing during the catastrophe of Napoleon’s 1812
campaign in Russia. Instead of capturing Napoleon and the remnants of his army, as
Napoleon himself had feared, he was allowed to escape through German territory with his
shattered army, which he later rebuilt. It was only because of this act of madness that
Napoleon’s campaigns of 1813 to 1815, with their incredible blood toll, became possible.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that soldiers have little respect for politicians.
Although Clausewitz taught that politics pervades and continuously affects the entire
act of war, the controversy between Moltke and Bismarck changed the opinion of the
soldiers. Briefly summing up Moltke’s thoughts, once the field commander achieved a
total victory, the politician could then build a new structure as a result.
The Kaiser once said, “Politics better shut up during war, until strategy allows it to talk
again.” That statement gave the final sanction to this twisted view of things. Glib courtiers
like Bülow, or those like Bethman-Hollweg who were rigidly caught up in interdepartmental battles, were not competent enough to exercise political power. When the
war finally broke out, it was not the statesmen but the dead hand of Schlieffen that
determined the course of the world. As the war progressed, things only got worse. The
statesmen provided no proper leadership, neither politically, nor economically.
Nonetheless, since business had to be taken care of, the void naturally was filled by the
strongest entity, OHL, and at the time it had the support of every German. People from all
walks of life sent numerous letters of encouragement to Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Even
the bureaucrats were happy that someone else was dealing with the critical issues. Of
course OHL was faced with tasks that it was not by nature equipped to handle, but nobody
saw or wanted to see that.
The situation was similar at home, where practically the complete administration was
handed over to the deputy commanding generals of the corps districts, who were neither
schooled nor suited for such functions. To the best of my knowledge, nobody from the
civilian authorities ever made even the slightest attempt to regain control. They were
perfectly comfortable letting the soldier do everything and not having to bear any
responsibility.
Only one person could have and should have effected changes, and that was the Kaiser.
His grandfather, endowed with a highly developed insight into human nature, had
achieved the balance between the military and the political leadership, and with his
authority he had elevated the political element to its rightful position. But by the start of
the war things were different. Although a highly gifted and colorful monarch was at the
helm of the nation, he suffered from the disability of his crippled left arm, which he
constantly tried to hide. He was broadly educated, influenced by his ancestor, Frederick
the Great, and he primarily followed his accurate intuition; but he frequently was too weak
and flighty to assert himself. His incomplete character development and lack of a work
ethic made him prefer the slick, yes-men courtiers who paid homage to his authority. He
selected personalities weaker than himself. The former Rittmeister8 von Penz,
Hindenburg’s son-in-law and his aide-de-camp, once said of the people who surrounded
the Kaiser: “They were wimps; we did not socialize with them; we felt we were better
than they.”
The Kaiser, however, could tolerate opposing views. The younger Moltke, when he was
assigned as chief of the General Staff, asserted himself by clearly insisting on a halt to
many of the abuses by the members of the Kaiser’s inner circle.
An eyewitness to one such incident, a comrade from my regiment, General von
Dallwigh, told me about a scene at the officers’ mess at the Altengrabow training area: “I
believe sixty members of the Prussian parliament, who were for the most part district
administrators [Landräte], had voted against the Midland Canal, bringing down the
proposed bill. They were the so-called Canal Rebels. During a dinner with three hundred
officers of a cavalry division, the Kaiser toasted toward a Rittmeister, saying, ‘Prost, your
brother is one of those rebels too.’ The Rittmeister answered loudly in the silent room, ‘I
wish Your Majesty had only such loyal subjects as my brother.’ There were of course no
consequences.”
The shortcomings of the Kaiser became obvious during the war, and there were efforts
to marginalize him. I deduced this from one of my father’s letters from the field to my
mother, which he wrote as a divisional commander. Such efforts are also mentioned in the
memoirs of the chief of the Navy’s Personnel Command (Marinekabinett), Admiral Georg
von Müller.
All in all, one can say about the Kaiser that he was a colorful, multifaceted personality,
who always wanted the good, who often decisively did the right thing, and even more
often recognized it. I am thinking for example of his establishment of a research institute,
the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society (today known as the Max-Planck-Institute), and later on, his
involvement in the development of wireless radio, where he intervened to end the
competitive battles between two global companies. I also think of the dismissal of
Bismarck, which often has been viewed as a mistake. Bismarck’s intended solution of the
social problem, pushing the workers into revolution, quelling of the revolts with the
maximum power of the state, and then the rebuilding would have sent Germany into deep
crisis. The young Kaiser did not play along; he correctly had something in mind along the
lines of the workers being positively integrated into the whole of society. Unfortunately,
his flightiness prevented him from pursuing this line to its ultimate conclusion; indeed, it
ended with an ill-chosen remark about the “stateless vagabonds.” Perhaps he recognized
instinctively that Bismarck’s strength lay in foreign policy and not in domestic politics,
and that Bismarck was at his zenith. Owing to the timing of his dismissal, Bismarck
retained his well-deserved glory and his place in the heart of the German people.
The war confronted the Kaiser with tasks that were bigger and tougher than he. It was
his fate, not his fault. The absent political leadership during the preparation for war and
during the course of the war was decisive and resulted in the war being lost. The soldier
bore no fault here. It would have been necessary to juxtapose the strong personalities of
OHL against a similarly strong political personality, a personality who would have been
capable of leading the people as an alternate force. When Marshal Foch overstepped the
boundaries that were set for him as a soldier, Clemenceau stepped in, saying, “Be quiet,
this is France speaking now!” Germany did not have such a personality in the political
sphere.
Were our war preparations sufficient? The coming world war was looming over
Germany. It was bearing down while Bismarck was lying on his death bed. It was destined
to be a fight against incredibly superior forces that was mostly on our shoulders, and not
on the shoulders of our weak and unreliable allies. What was overlooked was the fact that
in 1870 fifty-five German divisions had won against thirty-three French divisions, and that
during the German Wars of Unification we maintained weapons superiority. Bismarck’s
politics were based on the needle gun.9 “Your Majesty, introduce this rifle and you can
determine where Prussia’s borders end.” Those were the words that the minister of war,
Albrecht von Roon, used to recommend the purchase of the rifle to King Wilhelm.
But what about the inner attitude of the Prussian/German Army? Did they not believe
that they could measure up to any army in the world? One army at a time, yes; but not all
of them together. The decision was not made to build up and organize our military forces
like that of France. When Ludendorff demanded such before the war, he was marginalized.
The statesman who would have been able to make the armament industry compatible
with his goals did not exist. A horribly fragmented politics of defense was the
consequence. An oversized fleet took resources away from the army.10 To avoid conflict
with the Reichstag, these necessary demands were not advanced. Nor did the Reichstag
make any of the necessary requests. So, we marched into battle with the completely
untapped productivity of the nation. Not even organizationally was anything done to
establish a balance. Specifically, I am thinking here of the forming of another army corps
from the many Reserve Jäger battalions during the initial mobilization. Attached to
various conventional units, these elite units were useless and irrelevant to the conduct of
the battle.
The tables of organization of the Landwehr brigades indicate just how haphazardly
those units were structured. And this was done in full expectation of actually using them.
Landwehr Corps Woyrsch is a typical example. Wherever the Landwehr was engaged,
they fought a good fight. They were equal to regular French or Russian formations, often
even superior. The same can be said of the Ersatz11 divisions.
In 1915 we finally adjusted the divisional structure by adding a reserve infantry
regiment to each brigade to establish a division of three infantry regiments; we also added
a reserve artillery battalion to establish an artillery regiment.12 Even earlier the German
Military Mission to Turkey had taken the same steps to reorganize the Ottoman Army. The
large increase in the number of machine guns issued to the infantry regiments allowed for
a significant reduction in the strength of the infantry companies, which freed up welltrained soldiers for assignment to the Reserve and Landwehr units, thus making them
more combat effective. And finally there was the blunder of the formation of the
Kinderkorps, which robbed us of the most talented future NCOs and officers for years to
come.
For whatever reason, the cooperation with the members of the Reichstag that Grand
Admiral Alfred Tirpitz pursued on behalf of the navy was never attempted by the Prussian
War Ministry. Nor was there any civilian preparation for the war, specifically in the area of
food rations. The military, specifically General Wilhelm Groener, had suggested buying
the Argentinian wheat harvest, but that initiative was rejected. The prevailing assumption
was that whenever there was a war, the army would be right there, and the army would fix
it. This failure of the civilian administration compounded the trend during the war in
which everything gravitated toward Ludendorff’s strong personality.
Military Leadership Failures
Much has been written about this topic. I just want to go briefly into the poor leadership in
the West up until the Battle of the Marne, and in the East until the appointments of
Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Initially one got the impression that the making of field
commanders from scratch by the General Staff had failed. This, however, was not quite
the case. The proper personalities were available in large numbers. I am thinking of
Ludendorff, Seeckt, Hoffmann, Groener, Schulenburg, and many others. Only one wrong
personnel decision had prevented the right man from being in the right position, thus
erasing all the preparatory work that had been accomplished during peacetime.
The appointment of Erich von Falkenhayn as chief of the General Staff was a blunder.
Maybe it can be explained by the Kaiser’s timidness toward the somewhat gruff and selfconfident greatness of the later OHL under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The monarch did
not want to be overshadowed by a victorious field commander. In any case, the MoltkeFalkenhayn period shows the critical importance of a personnel management system that
understands how to put the right man in the right place. Such a system should never give
preference to the soft, pliable, obedient man over the objectively right personality. The
latter should be slightly critical, unrefined, and never easy to deal with, even gruff. The
former, however, is more to the liking of the politician. Unfortunately, this lesson was not
applied in World War II either.
Ludendorff
It is impossible to conclude a retrospective on World War I without considering this great
soldier. His performance as field commander is history.13 The accusation that he pulled all
the strings must be evaluated in light of the failure of all the other responsible powers.
As former Royal Navy vice admiral Sir John Hughes-Hallet, and later a member of the
House of Commons, said of civil-military relations in 1956: “I would like to emphasize
here, that the only real danger of a military regime in Great Britain would be the result of a
failure of the civilian and political institutions. Such a failure would create a vacuum
which would be filled in time of war or in a national emergency by the army. In the long
run, all of our constitutional safeguards depend on the existence of energetic and
productive institutions in the political and in the civilian sectors and require them.”
This was exactly the situation in Germany during the First World War. Much, too, has
been written about Ludendorff’s decision following the Black Day of 8 August 1918 to
arrange for the government to stop the war. It saved us from a Kerensky-like experience
and from communism. Ludendorff’s postwar activities have been judged differently by
history, and by me as well. His actions were those of the warrior mentality, of a soldier
desperately fighting for his German fatherland, but failing to see that history had already
passed him by and that he had expended all of his ammunition.
During the period of my captivity in 1945, I came across an affidavit about Ludendorff
in the immediate postwar period by the industrial magnate Rehberg. Ludendorff reportedly
was proposing that the German Army should come under French command at a ratio of 3
to 2 in favor of France. With every German division there would be a French officer, and
with every French division a German officer, both of whom were tasked with making
mobilization against each other impossible. The German naval fleet would come under
English operational control. At a later stage Ludendorff envisioned an affiliation with the
British Commonwealth.
Poincaré and Foch supposedly were strongly interested in this proposal. Be that as it
may, Ludendorff’s objectively realistic spirit anticipated what DeGaulle and NATO later
accomplished. That the times were not right for something like this after World War I, and
that it may have been a French ruse, as one could suppose according to Otto Gessler’s14
memoirs, is another story. I would imagine that Ludendorff suffered from the realization
that he had allowed Lenin free passage to Russia, and thus had advanced Bolshevism.
Consequently, he had judged the extent of the future Bolshevik danger correctly.
After 30 January 1933 Ludendorff wrote to Hindenburg: “By appointing Hitler to
Reich Chancellor you have exposed our holy German fatherland to one of the greatest
demagogues of all times. My solemn prophecy is that this unholy man will push our Reich
into the abyss, that he will bring unspeakable misery upon our nation and that coming
generations will curse you in your grave for having done this.”
At the same time, a man like Theodor Heuss in his book Hitlers Weg [Hitler’s Path]
talked of Hitler’s integrity and his trustworthy personality.15 All these considerations again
and again come to the accusation raised by the civilian side that “soldiers know nothing of
politics.”
However, the soldier is a factor in foreign politics. He understands something about it
because he is used to dealing in an unemotional and level-headed way with the given
power structures. Any kind of wishful thinking is foreign to him, unlike many politicians.
In order to fulfill his mission, however, the soldier must have a unified people behind him,
and therefore he urges cessation or at least the minimization of the internal strife for the
sake of the larger foreign policy goal. But he overlooks the fact that this internal strife is
often necessary to further develop society from within. Because he is hostile and
unsympathetic to inner political party conflicts, he is accused of not understanding
politics. Both sides should be more understanding toward each other.
7
1919
Revolution
Goslar suffered the same fate of all the German garrison towns: a ban on shooting, the
appearance of sailors, the expelling of officers, the opening of the prisons, the looting of
uniform and rations warehouses, and the election of a soldiers’ council. Some of the old
NCOs prevented the worst excesses. The situation in the Reich was completely
unresolved. The SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany] and the USPD [Independent
Social Democratic Party], which was the former strongly left-leaning wing of the SPD,
had formed a temporary government. In all reality, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils
were governing, often in the wildest configurations. Everyone did what he wanted,
without concern for the whole. Criminal actions often were the driving force.
Kirchheim had come back from Hannover, where he had tried to gain some
understanding of the situation. On 26 November the battalion fell in for the last time,
firmly controlled by its officers. The following day we elected a soldiers’ council. My
company elected me unanimously, and the following day I was elected to the grand
committee by all the representatives of the frontline soldiers in a full meeting of the
councils. So, now every day by ten o’clock in the morning I sat in the grand committee
wearing my dress uniform, and took part in the governance of the city and county of
Goslar. Our outgoing regimental commander gave me some advice: “You always must
give those people the kind of advice that when they follow it, it will turn out wrong and
work against the workers’ and soldiers’ council.”
I decided to do exactly the opposite and act in a completely loyal fashion. The politics
of Goslar could never be decisive. All that mattered was preventing more damage and
keeping the option open for the reorganization of the 10th Jäger Battalion. My instinct
turned out to be right. I soon established a relationship with the labor representatives based
on respect, and I have been convinced ever since then that in politics trust and openness
play an unusually large role.
The members of the workers’ and soldiers’ council were rather straightforward people
who had the motivation to do the right thing and to maintain law and order. There were, of
course, a few brawlers and bad elements, but they could not win against the organized
laborers, who were firmly in control and who also were intellectually superior to the
brawlers. The council chairman was a mason by the name of Schacht, whom I remember
fondly. Financially the laborers tried their best to work selflessly and objectively, as far as
I could tell. They gave me a great degree of access and everything seemed to be on the up
and up. They worked especially well on food distribution. They knew the conditions. They
had not started the revolution and probably thought deep down that it was quite
superfluous, but they certainly were hoping that an inevitable world revolution would
solve all the problems.
Once again my old 4th Company gathered for a farewell party. It was like old times.
We stood together as one, untouched by the revolution. The overwhelming feeling was a
desire to see the old order reestablished. At the time I wrote: “The whole thing is a brutal
rape of the German people by a small minority of sailors, draft dodgers, and recruits. If we
do not successfully and quickly establish order and permanent conditions, we will in just a
few months have famine and Bolshevism in this country. The government in Berlin is too
weak, because it does not hold any means of power. Salvation can only come from the
field army, which has some of the best elements of the people.”
Our men were separated from the army. The battalion marched to the train station with
the band playing, officers in the lead. As they got on the train it was painful to see the
departure of all these faithful companions, with whom for years I had shared happiness
and suffering, hardship and death. The men felt it too, as I shook countless hands. A
farmer from the Oldenburg region got off the train again, grabbed my hand, and said;
“Herr Lieutenant, I thank you in the name of all my comrades for what you have done for
our company.”
Tears rolled down his face. Then the train disappeared into the dark. We had not
imagined the demobilization happening quite like that. We stood there at the station
feeling lost. The old days of our Jägers were gone. We faced a new and totally insecure
world, and it was now up to us to shape it.
Chaos ruled initially. Consolidations of the remaining soldiers swelled my company to
more than three hundred. Between twenty and thirty of them had served on the battlefields
with me. The majority were recruits and members of inactivated units from all over the
place. On 12 December the battalion refused to fall in for duty. One of the main
perpetrators of the revolt was up on the roof of the school in which we were quartered,
shooting onto the surrounding houses. Then he took off looking for me, but he did not get
very far. The members of my old veteran cadre took care of him and gave him a painful
lesson. The next morning I had everybody in formation and was listening to their
demands, like leave, new uniforms, housing in barracks. Most of the demands were
unrealistic because the supply rooms had been looted and were all empty. The main
perpetrator of the previous day’s revolt was brought forward, and I read out the charges
against him. He was then taken straight to the train station and in clear terms told to never
return to Goslar if he valued his health. A few others followed him. Later we learned that
of the two worst agitators, one had been in prison for four years, and the other for two. In
the end everything was brought under control by threatening denial of leave, rations, and
pay.
Those events demonstrated, however, that I could rely 100 percent on the old veterans
of my old company. The Reich and especially Berlin remained in total chaos. Impossible
resolutions were proposed and passed. I wrote in my journal at the time: “If this resolution
of the workers’ and soldiers’ council is passed, my work here will have been useless. I
think I can say without exaggeration that it was mainly my doing that things were taken
care of in a military manner; that radical chaos was prevented; that there is no voting on
who the officers would be; and that disciplinary action was taken.”
Naturally we continued to follow closely the events in Berlin. What happened there
determined our fate. The attempt had been made to establish order in Berlin with a few
divisions, but the troops wanted to go home. It was almost Christmas and they
disappeared, which a weak and indecisive leadership did nothing to prevent. This was not
the way to do it. In its current state the German field army was no longer capable of
accomplishing any mission. Only new volunteer units, small in size and made up of
quality people, would help the situation.
Ultimately the Christmas chaos in Berlin did have one good consequence. The
independents left the government, which strengthened the government’s ability to act. We
hoped that action would follow soon. It was almost a joke that the same people who
wanted to bring us eternal peace had to take up arms themselves after only eight weeks.
Only now these people would have to realize how foolish it had been to destroy the army.
The German people were defenseless, both internally and externally.
Parliamentary Deputy Gustav Noske had taken over military matters in the Reich. He
had come with a good reputation from his time in Kiel.1 In Goslar the events continued
on. Fortunately we were able to separate quite a few people from the army. Being close to
the madhouse situation in Brunswick, we initiated some precautionary military measures.
Above all I was able to convince the workers’ and soldiers’ council to institute some strict
military discipline.
On 9 January a number of delegates from the Hannover Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council
showed up and started recruiting volunteers to go to Berlin and to the eastern borders.
They had changed their tune completely and were now talking about how things would
not work without officers. Only recently we had been scorned and any hoodlum could
insult us in the street without fear of punishment. Now the officer corps was expected to
pull the mired cart out of the muck. Kreysing’s company and my company volunteered as
a whole for duty in Berlin and the East.
Border Security in the East
While Kreysing and I tried to reestablish some sort of order in Goslar, Kirchheim traveled
around Germany to get a feel for the situation. Just as we were ready to tackle new
projects, he came back with a new directive to transform the 10th Jägers into the Volunteer
Hannoverian Jäger Battalion for the border security mission in the East. Thus we avoided
having to fight as Germans against other Germans. The ethnic Poles in eastern Germany
wanted to leave the Reich, but they wanted even more. They wanted land where no Pole
was living and that had never been Polish.2 The Province of Posen3 was aflame.
Hindenburg with the senior army leadership had relocated to Kolberg. Germany’s eastern
border was to be defended with volunteer units against the Poles and Bolshevists.
On the evening of 25 January 1919 we left Goslar with approximately three hundred
Jägers and moved toward the east. A few of the old, former officers came to the parade
field as we were marching off, declaring that these troops were not real soldiers yet. We
knew that too. What we did not know were the conditions that awaited us and how our
men would deal with the new and unusual stresses. It would be a pretty tough situation
that we were getting into. As a cautionary measure, I had distributed the old veterans of
the 4th Company among all the railcars as we approached Sagan.4 I knew who did not
belong in our unit. In Sagan all the unreliable elements were taken off the train and sent
home. The rest, we hoped, would last.
Everything had been well prepared in Fraustadt.5 Unfortunately, we were billeted in the
same barracks with a totally out of control “Red” security battalion. That would have to be
changed first thing. The next morning we conducted drill and ceremony more rigidly than
ever on the parade field, as our Red barracks mates lounged in the windows yelling, “You
people are pretty crazy! Do not get caught in this! Tear off the idiots’ shoulder straps!” and
similar niceties. We conducted close-order drill for almost an hour. Then a whistle was
blown and soon thereafter the “Heroes of the Revolution” quickly left the Kaserne. We
had run the first battle and we returned to our old form. We received weapons, equipment,
and new uniforms. Overcoats were the only things that could not be found for us in all of
Germany, which made duty very hard in the -30 degrees Celsius air and in the face of
freezing easterly storms. I often loaned my own greatcoat to one of the guards on duty.
Later we solved the problem by taking the coats away from the Red units that were
unwilling to go into combat, but naturally had coats. “You will not be fighting anyway, so
why do you need the coats?”
The logic was clear and practical. It was a mistake that the riffraff in the garrisons had
not been sent home right away. Most of them did not want to go, however. What they
really wanted was an easy life in the barracks, the pay, and the pleasures. They were not
even capable of cleaning the barracks.
We held a company party that welded everybody together even more tightly. Later in
that evening a member of the Fraustadt Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council showed up in a
Jäger uniform and started to agitate against the officers. He had picked the wrong
audience. The soldiers hit him with some really strong counterarguments. Then one Jäger
jumped up on a table and gave a short speech: “We need Oberjägers, sergeants, and
officers. We will respect them. What we do not need is a workers’ and soldiers’ council!”
Throughout most of the Posen province the Polish revolution was winning, but the
situation currently remained tense on the front line. The Poles had to deal with serious
internal problems, including a lack of coal and a lack of fighting spirit among their troops.
They only drafted their youngest people, who formed no more than roving gangs without
artillery. The bitter cold often hampered fighting. But clearly they were trying to move the
Polish border as far west as possible, with the Oder River being one of the objectives even
then.
The fate of Posen weighed very heavily on all of us. Here in the middle of crisis and in
the middle of an unfriendly Polish world, Germany was in a difficult situation. The troops
wanted to fight, especially the 4th Aviation Replacement Detachment and the 6th
Grenadier Regiment, which had been moved back to its home garrison in the area. The
German population also rallied strongly. Posen had a clear German majority. A violent
clash was prevented by State Secretary Helmut von Gerlach, a known pacifist who had
been sent there from Berlin, and a senile commanding general who could not make a
decision to fight. That was how Posen became Polish. The 6th Grenadiers then fought
their way through to Silesia and became a rock in the waves of the Polish onslaught. To
the south of Fraustadt near Rawitsch,6 the Poles were on the offensive. There is not room
here to describe every single skirmish, but I do want to highlight some representative
excerpts from my journal.
6 February: “Alert! Transport toward Rawitsch. The local [Polish?] troops were even
sadder looking than the ones in Fraustadt. They disappeared after the first shot was fired.
Only the German local militias were any good. The reception in Rawitsch by the locals
was marvelous.”
7 February: “We attacked the small town of Sarne.7 As soon as the Poles spotted our
long lines of riflemen and took some fire from our supporting artillery battery, they all ran.
My company entered Sarne from the rear. The jubilation of the freed local population was
without end.”
8 February: “We were resting when a new alert was sounded. A company of the 50th
Infantry Regiment had left its positions and had gone to Rawitsch to go dancing. The
chairman of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, by the name of Krederlich, was in
cahoots with the Poles and wanted to turn Rawitsch over to Polish control.”
9 February: “Three companies of the 50th Infantry Regiment, each sixty men strong,
were supposed to relieve us. Instead, only thirty-two men showed up. Consequently, we
got no rest before our next mission.”
10 February: “We attacked into Stwolno, with the 6th Grenadiers coming from the
south and us from the north. The Poles did not respond to our attack. As I was moving
south in the village, my runner and I suddenly encountered a well-equipped and orderly
body of advancing infantry. ‘Are you the 6th Grenadiers?’ I asked.
“ ‘Yes, Sir!’ they responded as they moved along.
“But then one of my Jägers shouted, ‘Herr Lieutenant, they all have the Polish Eagle on
their headgear.’
“We were standing in the middle of the retreating Polish infantry. I immediately gave
the order to fire. Some of them fell, but most disappeared in the rolling terrain. Their
trailing elements, however, got caught in our fire and we captured several machine guns.
“The 50th Infantry Regiment relieved us. They complained loudly about having to go
back into their positions, saying they would rather go back to Rawitsch. One of my
platoons had remained behind in the important agricultural settlement of Wiesenbach.
When we had received the alert notification, the 50th Infantry Regiment had left its
positions and had withdrawn to Rawitsch, without having been attacked. They left behind
two artillery pieces, which our 1st Company recovered the next day. My Jäger platoon in
Wiesenbach had remained in position and saved the situation.”
11 February: “Heinz Guderian8 was with us. He was now a captain on the General Staff
at the field army headquarters in Breslau.9 The conditions were the same everywhere.
There were three reliable battalions in the whole field army, the 6th Jägers, 10th Jägers,
and 6th Grenadiers. The troops from Rawitsch were just about the worst. As soon as two
good divisions could be pulled together, the intent was to take Posen from the north and
south. But in the meantime those units did not exist. The fight at home was absorbing too
much of our resources.”
12 February: “Rawitsch was mopped up. All unreliable personnel were dismissed. Our
people stormed into a session of the workers’ and soldiers’ council and declared it
dissolved. They then handed all the money and the files over to the mayor, whom they
quickly brought in. They tore down the red flag from the top of city hall and raised the old
black, white, and red colors. The whole town was in a delirious state.”
13 February: “The towns of Rawitsch and Fraustadt each requested for us to remain
there permanently in garrison. But then another alert order came in, and we loaded up to
go to Bomst.”10
14 February: “From Bentschen11 southward there was a long row of lakes, only
occasionally interrupted by a narrow outlet. The Poles used that route to break into the
Brandenburg region. A German counterattack was launched by the well-seasoned 10th
Uhlans, supported by the still effective remnants of the regiments from Brandenburg and
Silesia, throwing the Poles back. A bridgehead near Neudorf was still in Polish hands.”
In the evening I conducted a relief with my company in a narrow strait near GrossGroitzig.12 I had four machine guns from the 38th Fusilier Regiment with me. I knew this
area very well. As a boy I had spent two years living with a local priest in the nearby town
of Kopnitz. I used to roam the forests with a small gun hunting squirrels.
I was positioned all by myself with my company over a large area. One hundred men of
the Volkswehr13 were located nine kilometers to the north, a squadron of the 10th Uhlans
was seven kilometers to the south, and the rest of battalion was behind me in Bomst, to
which I had a telephone line. Somewhere in my rear there was a relatively large artillery
unit firing preplanned interdiction fires all around us.
15 February: “A full moon shone down on the snow-covered fields. The night was
bright as day. At 0430 hours a force of about fifty Poles approached our position, and we
pushed them back. I was still able to request artillery fire on some key points, but then the
phone wire was cut. From the village of Gross-Groitzig, three hundred meters east of our
position, we suddenly started taking intense machine gun and rifle fire. Then we saw and
especially heard the Polish columns moving toward us from the forest near Neudorf. I
assessed it as a ruse because of the excessive noise they made. I moved with my reserve
toward the southern front line, where the forest reached almost all the way to our position.
About that time we also started taking machine gun fire from the west.”
On my southern front a yellow star cluster went up. I had been right. The main attack
was launched by a bunched-up mass seventy meters in front of my machine gun. It
immediately broke down. At the same time from the north masses of Poles stormed
forward. That attack too broke down under our machine gun fire. Our machine gun fire
now laid down a hedgehog defense from all four directions. There was little cover
anywhere. The air was full of red star clusters and interdiction fire, but not a single
artillery battery was firing. A machine gun was firing in the distance, in the direction of
Bomst. I had a bad feeling. In Gross-Groitzig everything was stable, but the Poles were
now attacking on a wide front. Our artillery had been overrun and the fighting in Bomst
was reportedly hand-to-hand.
The situation was muddled. I decided to clear our rear area first. A sand pit on a hill
was the dominating terrain feature. Feldwebel Chraszler took two squads and the captured
Polish machine guns up there, which put us on the enemy’s north flank. That gave us some
breathing space and covered our rear. A squad of scouts on bicycles rode off toward Bomst
about the time a small milk wagon appeared from there. Everything now appeared quiet in
Bomst. Realizing the situation, the Poles quickly abandoned their positions and withdrew
toward the forest near Neudorf, but our following fire mopped them up horribly.
Our men had fought with spirit, just like during our best days, but our losses had been
high. Half of our machine guns had been knocked out, the crews lying dead or wounded
next to them. There had been no cover during the battle. Two of my troops had fought
exceptionally well. One of my runners, Jäger Runge, constantly moved through the
thickest fire. He was wounded twice, and then a third shot to his pelvis finally brought him
down. Jäger Reiche stood for twelve hours in his foxhole in an exposed position, with an
icy wind blowing over him. He fired and fired, while his comrades were killed or
wounded all around him. He did not waver until he passed out from exhaustion. But just
as bravely as we had fought, the courageous machine gun crews of the 38th Fusilier
Regiment had put up a good fight.
The Poles had attacked with a reinforced company from the south and a strong
battalion from the north. We counted 103 dead Poles in front of our positions, and we
captured three machine guns. Unfortunately, our artillery and their observers had gone to
sleep after laying down the initial interdiction fire.
18 February: “We stormed the Neudorf bridgehead.” Then a truce was called by the
Entente Powers and both warring parties were prohibited from conducting further
operations.
The battalion could be proud of its accomplishments. Our successful fight had
determined the future border of the Reich in our area. The enemy, too, had paid us quite a
compliment by posting a bounty of 500 marks for the head of every Jäger, dead or alive.
Finale
The battalion was pulled back from the front line and went into ready reserve for the VI
Corps near Glogau. Training and reconstitution were the priorities. Our strength soon went
up to approximately one thousand men. But who were those men that came to us? The
core came from the 10th Jägers, but volunteers from all over Germany joined us as well.
The locals from the German-Polish border region proved especially useful. We also got
many men from Upper Silesia who could only speak broken German. What motivated
them?
For many, there was personal attachment to their old officers. Disgust with the
impossible conditions in the homeland, joy in good soldiering, and the desire to rebuild a
decent Germany were also driving forces. My company first sergeant was a Jew. In short,
all elements of society were represented. A number of Alsatians also remained because
they felt a nostalgic attachment to the battalion.
But along with these good elements, there were the bad ones. As we were moving out
of Goslar, an old white-haired gentleman in a fur coat and top hat reported to us. “Herr
Lieutenant, I was too old for the world war, but now in Germany’s hour of need I also
want to serve.” I was touched and I signed him on as a clerk. Since I was not able to issue
him a uniform right away, he performed his duties in his fur coat and topper and caused a
lot of amusement in the battalion, especially by the stalwart salutes he rendered in this
costume. But there was something about his saluting I did not like. It was a little too
exaggerated, like he was hiding something. Long ago I had learned the art of reading the
salutes of my men. My skepticism paid off and we caught him red-handed as he was
trying to board a train with the company’s payroll. It turned out that this patriot had
twenty-seven previous convictions for fraud and theft. Such cases were relatively
harmless. It was far more difficult to prevent the infiltration by the subversive elements.
Countless men, girls, and women talked to the troops and tried to influence them with
the “Red poison.” This was difficult to prevent legally, and much more dangerous to fight
than open resistance. Perhaps it was the only real danger we faced then. The only effective
countermeasures were solid arguments and dissociation from the population. As he
crushed the Paris Commune uprising in 1871, French marshal Patrice de MacMahon
issued orders to shoot any person caught talking to the troops. We did not go that far, of
course, but there were countless fistfights between the troops and the disruptive elements.
I was sent back to Goslar on recruiting duty. Things were starting to look good there,
too, after all the undesirable elements had been gotten rid of, but the Reich still looked like
a madhouse. The Social Democratic movement had made an unmistakable shift toward the
right. Herr Schacht, a mason and the calm and deliberate chairman of the Goslar Workers’
and Soldiers’ Council told me, “Democracy is nonsense. The German people are not ready
for it. We first need an army again with good officers. The idea of eternal peace is crazy.”
Nonetheless, the move to the right by the reasonable leadership was off-set by the
move to the left by the masses. The Social Democrats’ determination to get votes at any
cost now produced dire consequences. The regions that had never been Social Democratic
before were now the most radical. In the countryside around Goslar the word was, “What
can a majority Social Democracy do for us? The Spartacus League [Spartakusbund] is the
only right one for us.”14
At the beginning of March I traveled back to Silesia. But no trains were leaving Berlin
anymore, because of the uprising of the Spartakusbund. Of necessity, I remained in Berlin
as a quiet observer. Horrible acts of violence and chaos occurred daily. All units that were
not controlled by officers failed. It was only the officers who saved the day for Germany.
On 8 March a train was supposed to leave for Silesia from the Görlitzer Bahnhof train
station. I got an early start, but I lost an inordinate amount of time trying to find my
gloves. They turned out to be lying openly in my room on a white tablecloth. Shaking my
head, I left for the station. Why I had not seen the gloves right away was a complete
mystery to me. The subway line went all the way to the Gleisdreieck station, and from
there I had to walk to the Görlitzer Bahnhof station. As I got closer to the station there
were more and more people milling around. Agitators were giving speeches. Naturally I
was glared at, in my dress uniform and shoulder boards. Some people yelled, “Tear off his
shoulder boards,” and other obscenities.
As I got closer to the station the square was packed. I calmly walked right through the
mob. Only one of them yelled at my back, “I would like to put a bullet right through your
head, you pig!”
The government troops at the station were surprised to see me. “For goodness’ sakes,
how did you get through? Half an hour ago members of the Spartacus League tore up two
of our people.”
Looking for my gloves for half an hour had saved me from getting embroiled in that
melee. I never understood it at all until about fifteen years later when an eye doctor
explained to me that as a nervous overreaction it is possible to overlook small items on a
white tablecloth.
The Finest Hour of the German General Staff and the SPD
While we were successfully trying to stabilize the situation in the eastern part of the
Reich, big politics continued its relentless course. Signing the Versailles peace treaty or
continuing the war was the big question.15
A new army was being rebuilt in the East and in the interior of the Reich. Could it
stabilize the situation? Our self-confidence was limitless. All the preparations to march
toward Posen and to reestablish the old eastern border had been made. Nobody doubted
our success. We hoped passionately that the government would reject the peace treaty. Our
signature on this shameful document seemed unacceptable and impossible.
“On 23 June 1919 at 2100 hours the eastern front is again in a state of war with the
Entente and Poland.” The contents of that message spread like wildfire from mouth to
mouth. On 24 and 25 June nothing happened. We waited in vain for more news. On 16
June we had received orders to be prepared to march, but to where? Nobody knew.
Rumors flew everywhere. The mood of the men and the officers was extremely tense.
Everyone was ready to ignore the orders of the government in Berlin and to subordinate
themselves to any leader who was willing to attack toward the East.
Then new information reached us. The Spartacus League and the radical left had
decided to use strikes and sabotage in our rear to make further fighting impossible. That
triggered fierce anger in the army. Later, when we were in action in Küstrin and
Landsberg, the violent clashes in the Reich reached a new level of intensity. Then on 28
June Germany signed the dictated peace. Our world collapsed. Everything seemed to have
been in vain. Many people left us and went back home or to the Baltic states. The troops
felt deceived and abused. The names of Wilhelm Groener and Friedrich Ebert were only
spoken in disgust. Any trust in the leadership was gone. Messengers hurried from unit to
unit. During various meetings many argued for us to take our fate into our own hands.
What was sacred to us and what kept us together was the loyalty to the old, beautiful 10th
Jäger Battalion. But that loyalty was under severe stress.
This was a period of the most peculiar contrasts. But in truth, never before had the
leadership of Germany and of the German Army been in such clear, firm, sober, and
intelligent hands as during the time between the armistice and the signing of the peace
dictate. What we did not know at the time was that since the days of the signing of the
armistice at Compiègne,16 two men had been on the phone daily working through the
hopeless situation. On one side was the first quartermaster general of the German Army,
Groener, and on the other the president, Ebert. The former was losing all control of the
army, and the latter was in danger of losing control over the population. The one brought
his position as a veteran officer to the table, the other his position in the SPD. Both of
them knew that they had to sacrifice their personal honor and reputations. Both were more
than doubtful whether their bases, the officer corps and the laborers, would follow and
would understand.
A close examination of the details of this cooperation reveals a degree of collaboration
between the military and politics such as had never occurred in Germany before—and
would not occur again. No constitution and no laws achieved this collaboration. The
decisive factor was solely the goodwill of two intelligent, patriotic Germans, ironing out
the details and using all the means at their disposal to achieve a solution. Most likely
neither one of them was aware at the time that they were contributing a classic chapter to
the history of military and civilian cooperation.
The toughest hour came when the peace dictate had to be signed. It is surprising with
how much sober clarity men like Groener and Ebert, and also Generals Wilhelm Heye and
Hans von Seeckt, analyzed the situation and concluded that a taking up of arms again
would mean the end of Germany. There was no emotion here, no patriotic surge; but the
Reich survived and we were spared our own Kerensky-like episode. At the time, buckets
of dirt were poured on Ebert’s and Groener’s heads. I as well thought that they had
abandoned their honor, and I therefore feel it my duty now to state in hindsight that I
regard both men as two of the most important names in German history.
But the dear price at the time was a total breakdown in trust in the army. Crying and
waving their arms, the inhabitants in the East saw our train off, as we started heading west
again. As we passed through Lehrte people threw rocks at us, accompanied by insults like
“bloody dogs,” and “bums.” We were even shot at. This was how the Fatherland was
thanking us. Doggedly we entered Celle, where quite a few of the locals learned the hard
way that they could not insult a 10th Jäger without paying a price.
Back in Goslar
On 2 August 1919 we returned to Goslar and were merged with the existing units there
into the Hannoverian 10th Reichswehr Jäger Battalion. When Kirchheim left us for
another assignment, we lost one of the best officers that I have ever known. Whenever his
tall, skinny figure appeared, calmly issuing orders while standing up exposed to enemy
fire, just like he was on maneuvers, everyone knew he was a leader.17 We all knew that his
orders were always solid. There was never any doubt that any attack he organized would
succeed. He was not interested in minutiae. He gave everyone the freedom to act. Enlisted
and officers alike respected him to the utmost. Kirchheim also knew how to develop and
retain good officers. He encouraged everybody’s talent. There could not have been another
unit of the old army like the 10th Jägers, where such a high number of officers had come
up from the enlisted ranks, every one of them magnificent comrades and capable officers.
Reserve Lieutenant Heino Bosse was also one of the best officers I have ever served
with. He started out as a one-year volunteer, and he once declined an opportunity to
become a reserve officer in a line infantry unit to remain as reserve Oberjäger with us.
During the war he quickly became an officer and commanded the 3rd Company for a long
time. He was one of those magnificent, unmatched farm boys from Lower Saxony. He had
been a farmer in Melverode, a communist town near Brunswick. After the war he was
elected mayor, even though he had no political affiliations. Later, during the Third Reich,
he was elected again, even though he was not a member of the Nazi Party.
Bosse’s long-serving runner during the war became his dairyman after the war.
Together they would pin on their Iron Crosses and go to the veterans’ meetings. Whenever
the dairyman would say in his thick, Low German accent, “Now we have to milk the
cows,” they would then put their Iron Crosses back in their pockets and return to the farm.
In 1940 Bosse commanded a company during the crossing of the Bug River, and his
runner was the same dairyman from the previous war. They were both hit at the same time
by deadly Russian fire on the first day of the Russia campaign.
My duties changed as well. I became the adjutant of the battalion.
Memoirs only serve a purpose if they try to capture moods and events—in short, the
atmosphere of the times they describe. Later additions are valuable and necessary to
provide contrast. One should never give in to the temptation to give events a form that
they did not have at the time based on later insights and improved knowledge—and to
attempt to make oneself look like somebody who knew everything at the time.
Undoubtedly there are people like that, but I am not one of them.
The Mood of the Times
A bad winter was behind us. Morale had been horrible. Ever since the signing of the peace
treaty the trust in the government and the leadership had gone to hell. Everybody, officers
and men alike, felt the insecurity of an unknown future. Who was going to be able to stay
in uniform?18 Everybody was looking for an alternative civilian career. Whenever
someone thought he had found something, he grabbed it. This festered and affected the
cohesion of the troops. And the big question was: “How could we possibly keep the
Spartacus League at bay with a one hundred thousand-man army?”
Up to that point we had managed with approximately three hundred thousand men, and
because we had been led politically and militarily in a disciplined manner—whereas the
revolutionaries, although highly superior in numbers, had failed. They were without
discipline and had a totally confused and indecisive political and military leadership. What
would happen if those conditions changed? We only knew one thing for sure—we would
with our lives and bodies have to bear the burden of the mess that had been handed to us
by the politicians. We needed a leader. Hindenburg was gone. Ebert was not respected.
Groener even less so. Where was the man we could trust?
There was one possibility—Hindenburg. Confidence in him remained unshaken.
Although when he resigned from OHL he had made it clear that he did not want to have
anything to do with Groener and Ebert, the people still might have listened to him.
Hindenburg should have gone to the troops; he should have talked to the officers and the
enlisted and explained the military and political situation. He should have convinced them
of the political necessity of the decisions that were made. He should have clarified that
Groener and Ebert were not villains, but responsible, patriotic men. Noske, too, might
have assumed this task. He still had the ear of the soldiers. Hindenburg, however, was old
and firmly rooted in the old attitude that orders are given out at the top, and at the bottom
no questions are asked; orders were to be followed, even against one’s own convictions.
That the times had changed, that soldiers were thinking beings, went unnoticed. Frederick
the Great had once said, “If my soldiers would think, they would not follow me.” But now
the soldiers and the officers did think, and they felt abused, cheated, and lied to. The result
was a breeding ground for the worst kind of militarism. And so the disaster ran its course.
The Kapp Putsch
On 13 March we were surprised by a military coup in Berlin. The Ebert-Noske
government had been toppled. The new government was led by Wolfgang Kapp and
General Walther von Lüttwitz. Our brigade alerted us to prepare for marching orders. The
mood of the Goslar labor movement was depressed, but they did not intend to resist
should the new government establish its legitimacy. Naturally, they had to follow the
orders of their party and the labor union. We sighed a breath of relief. We had high hopes
for Germany.
The 10th Reichswehr Brigade was assembled near Hannover. Our bicycle company
was sent ahead to Hannover, and the rest of the battalion followed on foot, as the railroads
were on strike. Almost all the requisitioned automobiles broke down just a short way
outside of Goslar. Had it been sabotage? I was sent ahead to Hannover on the night of 14
March. Everything was quiet there. The 10th Reichswehr Brigade was under the
impression that in this totally confusing situation it was a state within the state and it had
to maintain law and order.19
I returned to the battalion. By noon on 15 March the staff and the bicycle company
were located in Rethen, near Hannover. The rest of the battalion was approaching
Hildesheim when we received an order from brigade sending us to Hildesheim
immediately. The workers had taken control of machine guns and rifles that were stored at
the county seat. The town was in the hands of uncontrolled, armed masses. The battalion
staff turned around and started moving back to Hildesheim. When we reached Sarstedt we
received a warning that armed members of the Spartacus League were approaching. The
lead element of the battalion went into position. As a civilian informant on a bicycle was
turning around right in front of us, a wagon that was following him dropped off a
considerable number of armed men. Firing erupted, horses fell, and the troops took cover.
Then women and children were driven out into the street, waving white sheets. Just in
time we observed how behind this human shield some men were trying to put a machine
gun into position. A short burst of fire over their heads scattered everyone. Then we
stormed toward them, shouting. We captured five machine guns, a bunch of rifles, and
twelve prisoners.
In Hildesheim we ran into a totally confusing situation. A new captain who had been
transferred into the battalion and who lacked any kind of experience was at the point of
the battalion. He was met by a delegation of the citizen militia who wanted to negotiate
the conditions for passage through town. He was supposed to send a detachment to the
union building where the confiscated weapons had been stored and render them
inoperative. But when they got there Captain Kreysing, a naval lieutenant named Behrend
who had been attached to us, and our armorer Lautenbach with two Jägers were trapped in
the union building. The howling masses outside wanted to lynch them. The local leaders
had lost all control. Fortunately, we were able to exchange our people for the prisoners we
had taken in Sarstedt. We only managed to get them out the back door, through backyards,
and over the fences because the head of the local communists physically covered our
people with his own body.
But we still had to get control of the confiscated weapons. We knew that the machine
guns had been taken to the union building. Circling around the local barracks, meanwhile,
the howling and totally out of control masses were throwing rocks at our guard posts. The
storm could break loose at any moment. Then shots were fired. At that critical point our
commander, Major Pflugradt, gave the order to prepare to fire. In accordance with
regulations, a bugle call was sounded and the mob was given three warnings to disperse.
We were answered with screaming and more rocks. Then we opened fire and the dead and
the wounded dropped. In the meantime, our follow-on companies with machine guns and
the artillery pieces of an attached battery had reached the town and started patrolling the
streets. The canal workers of the local branch of the Mittelland Canal, the main
perpetrators of the revolt, ran away. A workers’ delegation appeared within a short period
and handed over the weapons and machine guns. They accounted for everything except
one machine gun.
In the countryside, meanwhile, things were still running amok. Armed gangs roved
around, disarming the citizen militias and looting. The citizen militias for the most part
became ideal weapons’ depots for the Reds. Eventually we were able to reestablish order
everywhere. We disarmed the gangs and we reorganized the citizen militias and purged
them of their unreliable elements. Within just a few days what had been a boiling witches’
cauldron became a quiet and peaceful land.
We had been deeply disappointed by the Bürgertum.20 They had failed completely.
Again and again delegations appeared, pleading to stop the bloodshed; but as soon as the
initial shooting stopped, they acted as if nothing had ever happened. The Reds, who had
started a completely unnecessary revolt, were not confronted, of course. Lenin would have
been very happy with his “useful idiots.”
The Kapp Putsch was over. It had failed. Like many Germans, we welcomed the return
of orderly conditions. But what was left was a Germany shattered to its foundations, with
an abnormal distrust in its army and a Red army operating in the middle of the country and
the industrial center, the Ruhrgebiet.
8
1920
Mad Romberg
In the middle of the night our troop train stopped outside a station at Buldern, on the edge
of the Ruhr district. Somebody from the unit was supposed to get on the phone. Hientsch
and I started walking between two tracks toward the station. There was a train coming
toward us from the opposite direction. Just by chance I turned my head and saw another
train approximately one hundred meters behind us. I pulled Hientsch to the side and we
stood there clutching each other in the narrow space between the two tracks as the two
locomotives met exactly where we stood. As they went by we slowly realized that we had
escaped death one more time.
When we reached the station somebody there told us to go up to the castle, the baron
was awaiting us. My commander asked what the baron’s name was. “Baron von
Romberg.” If this was the famous Mad One, we had to be prepared for anything.1 It was
not him. He had passed away quite a while ago, but his son was trying hard to emulate his
father. He met us at the gate with punch. He had been waiting to see who would show up
first, the Reds or us. The Reds had been there the previous day and he managed to get
them all quite drunk. They had parted with the comforting prospect that they would return
and then, as sorry as they would be, they would have to kill him. Understandably, he was
happy to see us. Besides, he was celebrating the fact that he had just received his one
hundredth police citation and he therefore had sent a request to the local government at
Buldern to post a policeman to watch over him. He was trying in his own way to deal with
modern times. He had developed strong ties with the Red soldiers’ council at the
repatriation camp in Dülmen. On 27 January (the Kaiser’s birthday) he had invited them to
his castle, and then late that night they all sent a congratulatory telegram to the Kaiser in
exile in Holland, signing it, “Your Majesty’s most subservient Soldiers’ Council, Dülmen.”
He also was full of stories about his father, which he told us with a great sense of humor.
The Ruhr Red Army
We provided cover for the deployment of a large number of troops to the Ruhr district.
The idea was to wait until all forces were concentrated and to avoid piecemeal action. We
were still feeling the aftershocks of the Kapp Putsch and the Hildesheim experience.
Could we count on the German middle classes at all? Was not the Bürgertum just caught
in the middle of the struggle between the two energy poles in this society, the army and the
workers? I wrote in my journal at the time: “The labor movement is indeed a huge power
that should not be underestimated; eventually a modus vivendi has to be found to deal
with them.” I also wrote: “A new sun is rising, ‘National Bolshevism,’ glistening,
seductive, and dangerous. The road via Bolshevism is the shortest path to recovery for the
German people, if the army and the workers pull together. The Bürgertum, with its lack of
fighting spirit, very well might capitulate.”
The Red Army wanted a fight. The Red movement in the Ruhr was well organized—no
looting, tight discipline, and a well-organized military structure. Bolshevism had learned
some lessons. There was a huge difference between the current and the initial uprisings at
the beginning of the year, where everything ended up in looting. There must have been
quite a few moral individuals within the movement. An alliance with such people should
have been less and less of an obstacle.
In the morning hours of 25 March, Guderian had assaulted the repatriation camp in
Dülmen with his 3rd Company. On the 29th we started our advance. Everything had been
briefed orally. The adjacent units, even our other companies, knew nothing beforehand.
Besides Guderian and me as the adjutant, only three other officers knew about the attack.
Thus, we finally were fortunate enough to surprise the Reds. We had managed to outwit
their excellent intelligence apparatus. The Red Guards fought an excellent fight. We took
losses, but the enemy was destroyed. They attempted to mount a dangerous and wellcoordinated counterattack with strong forces, but we repulsed it by our fire.
We took Haltern without resistance on the 27th. A mass of citizens flooded toward us,
begging for protection and help. Of the numerous young men of draft age that had made it
through to our lines, not one of them accepted a rifle that we offered them to participate in
the fight against the Reds. Anyone not willing to fight will go under. But the Reds
withdrew. They were done.
When the government decreed that anyone who had been wounded in the action would
receive 1,000 marks, the reaction was one of exasperation. For us the old saying “dulce et
decorum est pro patria mori” still had meaning.2 While the officers shook their heads and
smiled because they did not expect anything else from the government, the Jägers were
mad. They felt humiliated. The military has a soul after all, and not everybody understands
it.3
Orders to surrender all weapons always produced negative results. So the only hope
was that lack of proper maintenance would render the weapons and ammunition useless
before they were used again. On the political scene, meanwhile, there was a lot of back
and forth. Initially military tribunals were announced; then cancelled; then reintroduced;
then the imposition of the death penalty; then an amnesty; then the death penalty again.
Nobody knew what was going on. Nobody really seemed to understand that the
government of the Reich was not having an easy time of it. All this uncertainty among the
troops only led to an undesirable form of vigilantism. The troops grew tired of always
having to pull the chestnuts out of the fire, just to be insulted and never to receive a word
of recognition. The word “strike” was in the air. On 9 April our advance halted.
On 17 April we conducted an operational review with the division commander, General
Otto von Preinitzer. Continuation of operations required the approval of the Entente
occupation forces, which had limited us to a strength of nineteen thousand men in the
neutral zone. Thus, we had to withdraw forces from the zone.
The English occupation forces treated the Reds quite differently from the Reichswehr
units, which were disarmed and interned. Red troops were not interned and sometimes not
even disarmed. We had evidence that the English were giving weapons to the Red troops.
During conversations between interned German officers and English officers they hinted
that the reason was the difficulties with the labor force in England. The English
government wanted to avoid the appearance of fighting the German labor movement.
Military tribunals manned by civilians were supposed to be established to render quick
sentences. But the local judges resisted serving on them, for fear of exposing themselves.
Civilian judges were then brought in from the eastern provinces, but even most of them
did not want to serve.
We bid farewell to our commanding general, Oskar von Watter. He always had fought
for the welfare of his troops in an upstanding manner. Nobody understood his dismissal.
Watter had given the Reds a firm ultimatum. They were required to turn in a specific
number of weapons within a short time period. When he visited our battalion he told us
that the demands were unrealistic, but we had learned that lesson from Versailles. “Once
the ultimatum has expired, I will hit them hard and clean them up.”
In contrast, Prussian interior minister Carl Severing wanted to resolve the situation
through negotiation. The military leadership and civilian leadership were pulling in
opposite directions. Severing (the politician) was in a stronger position, so Watter had to
go. But subsequent events proved Severing right. The Ruhr district remained calm and
there was no further unnecessary bloodshed or new unrest. I see all this now in hindsight,
of course.4
The operations in the Ruhr district now came to a complete halt. One clearing action in
Wuppertal that was still pending was supposed to be taken care of by security police
forces under civilian leadership. The security forces refused initially, because they were
there to maintain law and order, and not to reestablish it. In the end they did the mission.
The Result
Looking back, I can now see that the government of the Reich had conducted some rather
skillful politics. They hit where it was required. They granted amnesty, hit again, and
granted amnesty again. In the end, lingering feelings of resentment and revenge were
prevented and the future was not burdened with too much unnecessary bloodshed.
The military, of course, did not have much patience with such an approach. Their
position was that the vox populi was not always the vox jovis.5 Justified or not, the military
felt that it had been abused. “National Bolshevism,” as it soon became known, spread like
an epidemic. At the end of April of 1920 (the exact date is not clear in my journal),
Hientsch told me that he had heard from two of our former officers, Steinhoff and Helwig,
the former from the University at Marburg and the latter from the academy at Clausthal.
They independently had told him that for a long time the students had been unsure
whether to support the Reichswehr or the Bolshevists. In the end they decided to throw
their support to the Reichswehr.
The press at the time was constantly reporting rumors of an alliance forming between
the communists and ultra-nationalist Reichswehr officers. General Hans von Seeckt
carefully considered such an idea, but in the end he dismissed it. I often took the
opportunity to talk to workers of the most diverse persuasions. The real communists were
hostile to the military. They did not trust us. Only the followers of Syndicalism would
have marched with us unconditionally. But they were a totally uninteresting splinter
group.6
Ernst Haccius, who as the regimental adjutant had remained in Brunswick, asked me to
give him my opinion on the situation. Haccius was one of our calmest and most
respectable officers. His judgment was always especially valuable. He was killed in action
in 1943 as the commander of the 46th Infantry Division in the Caucasus Mountains. I
wrote to him:
Herne, 10 April 1920
My Dear Haccius,
Many thanks for your postcard of 4 April. I see that you too are contemplating
the exact same questions that concern me and all of us here. The events of the last
four weeks have made us all wonder. One thing is clear: the German Bürgertum has
completely and utterly failed in Hildesheim, as well as in the Ruhr District. I think
that its historic role is over. Lazy, cowardly, incapable of fighting, the German
Bürger shakes in his boots in fear of losing his property and his fat belly, and so he
lets events run their course. He is not worth fighting for. What keeps the institution
alive at this point is the struggle between the two opposing poles, the army and the
labor movement, or call it “Bolshevism.” Without a doubt, you have to admire the
energy potential and the will to fight of the German laborers.
Does the future belong to them? Yes and no. The answer is no as long as the
officer corps as created by the Hohenzollerns makes a stand against them. It is yes
as soon as we join in with them. The struggle that the German Army is going
through right now is hard and hopeless. We do not have wide support among the
people. We can be successful for a little while, but that will end. The example of
1918, where we likewise did not have popular support, should make us think. The
economic demands of the workers are inconsequential to us. If they are just, then we
can only welcome them as change. If they are unjust, they will simply disqualify
themselves. Nobody wants to cut his own throat. Russia today is the best example.
And as for the property of the lazy Bürger who does not want to fight himself, we
should not have to fight for it. There is a lot wrong in our society that must be
eliminated with fire and sword. No mercy should be granted. Whoever of the
German Bürgertum and the higher society that still has some right to exist will
surely survive.
So, to say it in clear language, we must use communism (the dictatorship of the
proletariat) to reestablish reasonable conditions. The current muddling along cannot
be a long-term situation. Democracy cannot maintain itself. According to its own
label the labor movement is international. This makes no difference to us
nationalists. The national movement is stronger and it will prevail. Look at Russia as
an example. And besides, the German worker is so nationalistic that I do not see any
danger in the internationalism. Deep in the inner circles of communism there is the
popular notion of a war of revenge against France. If it came to a fight against
France, they would all come together again. You hear this kind of talk every day.
The popular view here sees our march against the Ruhr District as directed against
the Entente. That tells you something about the morale of the people. But we will
have to endure some hard times. Feelings cannot play a part in this.
We live in interesting times where everything old crumbles and new forces move
up. Our old Germany is no longer. We will never get it back, not even an
approximation. I have come to terms with this. But I believe in a new Germany
emerging from its best strengths, even if the road there is covered with thorns. That
is why I will remain a soldier, despite all the setbacks and the momentary
tribulations.
So, my dear Haccius, this is my opinion concerning Germany’s future. Grit your
teeth and bear it. It is difficult to give advice to others. Everyone must make up his
own mind. I have spoken about this with others. They had the same opinion as I,
even though we had never spoken about it before. So, at least I have not dreamed
this all up by myself.
I could still write a lot about this topic and everything related to it. One more
thing, though. Just like the German Bürgertum, we too unfortunately must strike our
Christian religion, at least in its current state, from the list of factors that can rebuild
Germany. The church too has failed. The powerful force of Christian teachings has
been watered down and is heading in the wrong direction. Our times are screaming
for a reformer or a new religion. Socialism is really nothing but the dissatisfaction of
the masses on a religious level.
But enough for now. We are doing well. The battalion is in better shape than ever
and the men stand as one behind their officers. We can do with them whatever we
must. They will follow us anywhere.
Best wishes,
We had taken a huge step closer to becoming Lenin’s “useful idiots.” At about the same
time, Rudolf Nadolny, the director of the Eastern European desk in our foreign ministry
who later became ambassador in Moscow, negotiated an alliance with the Russians. Soon
thereafter, National Bolshevism got a new boost when Poland collapsed and Russian
troops were approaching East Prussia.7 At the time we were conducting an exercise in the
Senne region, and General Hans von Seeckt, the new head of the Reichswehr, was there.
Slender, elegant, with an impenetrable face, his few concluding words to us were as sharp
as a dagger: “. . . and if the Russians cross the border of the Reich, then it is our task to
throw them out again, and we will do this promptly.”
A Roi Connétable8 had spoken. His military appearance, his self-assured voice, the
short, clear words, the unique aura that he exuded… . Nobody talked about “National
Bolshevism” from then on. Once again we had a general at the helm that we could trust.
9
1921
The One Hundred Thousand-Man Army
The remnants of the 57th and 59th Infantry Regiments and the 8th Jäger Battalion had
already been attached to the 10th Jäger Battalion. On 1 January 1921 we were reorganized
as the 3rd Jäger Battalion, 17th Jäger Regiment, of the new Reichsheer. Originally formed
as the Royal Prussian Hannoverian Jäger Battalion, the Goslar Jägers had made military
history, well known throughout Germany. Highly competent officers from all over
Germany had been attracted to the unit. Rommel had been a commander in Goslar. It was
a special honor to be part of the Goslar Jägers. When we were reorganized we still had six
out of nineteen officers from the old 10th Jäger Battalion—and if I remember correctly
there were still 108 of the old Oberjägers and Jägers. Major Benno Pflugradt, who took
command of the battalion after Kirchheim was reassigned, became the commander of the
new unit. Pflugradt had received the Pour le Mérite as commander of the 1st Reserve
Jäger Battalion. I remained as his adjutant. I was also assigned officially to the new
Reichsheer as the first of all the first and second lieutenants of X and VIII Army Corps.
Things seemed to be stabilizing. We had to chase after Max Hölz1 one more time, but
there were no armed clashes. Otto Gessler, the new minister of the Reichswehr, visited us
in Bitterfeld. He made a good and likeable impression, but Gessler later stopped visiting
the troops. Wisely, he limited his involvement to the political side of his functions and
made sure he covered Seeckt’s back. By shielding the military from all political and
otherwise harmful influences, he contributed greatly to the quality of the force. His job
was not an easy one.
Germany in the early 1920s was dominated by the Interallied Control Commission,
which supervised our disarmament. Goslar was an especially favorite target for these
bureaucratic riffraff. Imposing controls quickly was all well and good, but what was
supposed to happen if new disturbances or external complications arose? One hundred
thousand soldiers were not enough for Germany. It was highly questionable whether the
police could handle all the potential situations. We still had to rely on volunteers and
unauthorized weapons, which we had to hide from the control inspectors. We had no
intention of sacrificing our lives and the lives of our troops in a completely hopeless fight,
whether an internal or an external fight.
Thus, numerous machine guns and associated pieces of equipment and ammunition
were hidden away. We received inspection visits frequently, often at short intervals. It was
surprising how well informed the Control Commission was. They sometimes stood
directly in front of the walled-in hiding places, comparing what they saw to their
blueprints. One time they made us dig out hollow spaces under the large earth deposits at
the Rammelsberg Kaserne. The spot was absolutely right. Excitedly they dug up three
huge chests. Unfortunately, the boxes contained only bricks and heather. We had placed
them there as a subterfuge. They stopped their treasure hunt only a few meters short of the
actual hiding place that contained several machine guns. As our troops hung out from the
barracks windows and watched, they spontaneously broke into “Deutschland, Deutschland
über alles. . . .” The French were mad and embarrassed. The English, however, laughed
really hard, clearly feeling their allies deserved what they got.
But we wanted to know who had blown the whistle on us. So while our uninvited
guests were staying in Goslar, some of our competent Jägers in civilian clothes kept them
under surveillance. Once we thought we had the answer. “Herr Lieutenant,” they reported,
“the English major is receiving a lady in his hotel room. We will keep a close watch on the
lady.”
When she was trying to get on the train back to her hometown the police detained her.
At first she protested her innocence and refused to make further statements. But then she
finally caved in. She was a married woman from F______ and claimed she had an affair
with a Mr. Such-and-Such, a distinguished gentleman who had met her at the hotel. We
did not believe a word of it and told her, “Get Herr X here now!” He finally showed up—
with his wife and kids in tow. The reunion at the police station was more than dramatic.
The gentleman, however, did look amazingly like the English major.
Change of Branches
Mobile combat, the operative mission of the cavalry, had always tickled my soldierly
fancy. During the war I had spent a great deal of time working with cavalry units. The
prospect of remaining in a subordinate position in Goslar after I had commanded
companies for years was not for me, so I asked to be reassigned to the cavalry, specifically
to the 18th Cavalry Regiment in Stuttgart. Southern Germany was foreign to me. After a
short interlude in Celle, I reported to my new unit in early January 1922.
The regimental commander was Colonel Baun from Württemberg, who ran the
regiment with an iron fist. We were always on duty. He had laid the foundation for the
quality of the regiment. His successor was the exact opposite. Colonel von Kardorff had
been a Guard Cuirassier, a Guard Uhlan, and aidede-camp to the Kaiser. He was a
distinguished older gentleman who never cared about details and who managed everything
with a somewhat detached natural authority. Outside of the regiment he was viewed as
somewhat of a lackadaisical character. In fact, he was anything but. He could control the
most excitable individuals with a single glance. His insight into human nature and the way
he treated people was unique. When meeting a total stranger, he could make a short
remark or a gesture, and the individual addressed was clearly, accurately, and definitively
judged. In 1945 he put an end to his life at his mother’s grave site, only minutes before the
Russians forced their way onto his old family estate.
I faithfully keep a special place in my memory for Colonel von Kardorff. Until the
beginning of World War II, I maintained constant contact with him. Only once did he enter
into a barracks of a squadron, and that was mine. I had two billy goats that were always
roaming around the barracks, creating mischief and entertainment for everybody.
Unfortunately they once noticed Kardorff as he every inch the nobleman walked across
the parade field. The goats attacked him from behind. An intense duel ensued, cuirassier’s
saber against goats’ horns. Afterward, I received a written order to report back
immediately that the goats were gone. I had the heads of the two culprits stuffed and
mounted on a plaque along with the regimental order, and hung it over my office door.
Kardorff appeared on post, summoned me, and inspected the stuffed offenders. “Now that
I have seen them, you might as well get rid of them.”
The goat affair was never mentioned again.
General Reinhardt
The most striking personality I met in Württemberg was General Walther Reinhardt,
commander of the 5th Division and commander of Military District V. As a colonel he had
been the Prussian minister of war during the revolution. His time in that position had been
controversial. Clearly he did not have the unfailing political intellect of a Groener or a
Seeckt. His plan to make the eastern part of Germany independent and to rebuild the
Reich from there was completely unrealistic. Fortunately, Groener and Ebert proved
themselves to be stronger. Reinhardt was smart, an idealist of the highest caliber, and he
had an ascetic bent. It is possible that those qualities made him less successful when it
came to human leadership. He lacked toughness, something troops want. In the field of
tactics he was superior, a modern soldier. He later might have made a perfect successor for
Seeckt, an ideal complement. But Reinhardt had no such ambitions.
Reinhardt was with us often, and we enjoyed having this intelligent and reputable man
around. One day we led him out to the beautiful patio terrace of the officers’ mess,
overlooking the wonderful Cannstatt Valley. Across the valley on a hillside rose the towers
of a recently erected radio relay station that covered the whole southwestern region of
Germany. It was a system designed to function even if there had been a total collapse of
the mail and telephone services.
“So, what do you think makes the commander of this military district most happy when
he looks around, my dear K.,” said Reinhardt addressing Captain K., who had been
commissioned from the enlisted ranks.
“Well, I would think the fact that you cannot see any soldiers around here,” he
responded in his thick Swabian accent. The breakfast that followed was a very pleasant
event.
The 18th Cavalry
After a short time I was put in charge of the regiment’s machine gun platoon, which was
really a squadron. The unit later became the regiment’s heavy squadron, which consisted
of the machine gun platoon, signal platoon, gun platoon, and antitank platoon. Eventually
I had approximately three hundred troopers and three hundred horses under my command.
When I turned over the squadron in the fall of 1933 there was hardly a man in the unit
who had not started out as a recruit under me, and hardly a mount that had not come to me
as a young horse. It was a wonderful time. My superiors allowed me to command. I had
very good and capable officers, who all became successful. Heinz Trettner even became
the inspector general of the Bundeswehr.2 I had close ties with the enlisted troops, just as I
had had in Goslar with the Jägers. When I was going through rough times between 1945
and 1947 I received support from my old soldiers that I would have never expected in my
wildest dreams.
The twelve-year service obligation that was forced on us by the Versailles Treaty was
corrosive. Promotion opportunities were naturally minimal, along with a wide range of
other personnel management problems we had to solve. Training courses to prepare for
transition to civilian life, military leadership training courses, and other such innovations
helped us to overcome the difficulties. For my part, I did my best and supported those of
my soldiers who were qualified to become NCOs in other units. I therefore avoided having
to deal with a dangerous group of unhappy and dissatisfied perpetual privates who were
capable, but were stuck being privates forever. I also wrote truthful, not inflated discharge
evaluations. There were organizations in the Stuttgart area that would hire any applicant
with my signature on his evaluation, because they knew the man was exactly as I had
described him in the evaluation. The Military District V radio relay station, for example,
hired only my people regardless, even if they had not had radio operator training. “Your
people are at least soldiers we can rely on,” they told me. “We can teach them how to send
radio signals.”
One dark chapter during this period was the influx of psychopaths into the army. The
psychopath cannot succeed in the civilian career world. He is always a failure and he
knows it. But he thinks that becoming a soldier might work for him. In the army he is
given an order, and all he has to do is follow it. The leader leads you at all times and takes
care of you. But once the loser is in the army, he realizes that the demands are especially
high, and he realizes that he has failed there too. As a last resort, many turn to crime or
suicide.
In later years when Germany’s military build-up started, a remarkable number of the
troopers from my squadron were promoted to the highest levels. Two of my old
Wachtmeisters, Plapp and Lohmüller, were killed in action during World War II as
regimental commanders.3
Tactical exercises took us through all of southern and middle Germany. On the average
we could count on approximately sixty nights out in the field during the year, ranging
from Berlin to Lake Constance. Wherever we stayed I made it a rule always to talk with
our hosts about the economic, social, and political affairs of their towns. We, therefore,
were able to achieve a cross-sectional understanding that could not be obtained any other
way in Germany at that time. Once, when we had finished at the training area at
Altengraben near Magdeburg, my squadron officers and NCOs and I rode all the way back
to Stuttgart. It took fourteen days, sixty kilometers a day in the saddle, visiting all the
important cultural sites of Thuringia and Franconia. Those are unforgettable memories.
The one hundred-kilometer marches by entire regiments were popular events at that
time. Three days in a row, one hundred kilometers in the saddle, demanded quite a lot of
us. But such techniques can be learned. Overall, our training maneuvers were very
stimulating and battle-oriented. One such maneuver in the Rhön area concluded with a
parade before Hindenburg. The entire cavalry division, six mounted regiments, dashed
with thundering hooves at full gallop past the field marshal, in an unbelievable cloud of
dust. And there at the place of honor, in a haze but clearly distinguishable like in a halo,
stood old Hindenburg, unreal, iron-like, as if he were a stone monument.
Seeckt, Heye, and Hammerstein
The Reichswehr became a good army because it was led by an individual of the highest
military caliber and not administered by an anonymous group. It was Seeckt who put his
stamp on us. The trust that he had gained in political circles allowed him to screen the
troops from any political influences, which was more than necessary considering the
conditions that Germany faced at the time. The sad example of the Austrian Bundesheer
justified our political isolation. Seeckt’s strong suits were politics, his attitude toward the
state, his operational background, his absolute discipline, and his ability to prevent any
sort of spying on individual convictions. During World War II the operational training of
the German Wehrmacht reached a peak unsurpassed by any other army at any other time.
That was to the credit of Seeckt, who by building on Schlieffen’s ideas administered that
legacy in a masterful way.
The instrument that Seeckt had created was firmly in his hands. His authority was
unquestioned and unflappable. It was unthinkable that his orders would not be followed.
When Ebert in 1923 grew concerned about a military putsch and mentioned it to him,
Seeckt could proudly declare, “In the Reichswehr there is only one person that could lead
a putsch. That is me, and I will not do it.”
Two of Seeckt’s decisions stand out in particular. During the Kapp Putsch he declared,
“Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr,” very possibly saving Germany from a deep
inner political crisis that could very well have resulted in only one winner—communism.
His sharp intellect, which was accustomed to analyzing matters in a businesslike and
objective manner, clearly saw that the Kapp Putsch did not have a chance of succeeding
and that it would collapse within a short period. There was, therefore, no sense in spilling
blood and creating obstacles for the future. Events proved him right, which still did not
prevent some leftist politicians from criticizing him for refusing to resort to force.
Germans, even if they are left leaning and pacifist when it comes to foreign politics, like
to follow in domestic politics the old adage, “If you do not want to be my brother, I will
simply kick in your head.”
Seeckt made his second important decision in 1923. Ebert had given Seeckt the
executive authority in the Reich. Seeckt at that point had the power of a dictator. The
Social Democrats, the Centrist Party, and the democratic forces supporting the government
were in a shambles. Communism had been defeated. The right was urging Seeckt to
overthrow the government. And at that point the aristocratic Seeckt, the absolute master of
Germany, went to the president of the Reich, the socialist craftsman Ebert, and reported
the accomplishment of his mission and returned all of his authority back into Ebert’s
hands. Seeckt realistically understood that it would have been impossible to govern the
country in opposition to the labor movement. But then what happened to the labor
movement, to social democracy? The movement remained stagnant. In any other country
Seeckt’s truly democratic step would have caused an internal political turning point. But
this was Germany, the country of obstinate doctrinaires.
I came into contact with Seeckt often. We flocked to his after-action reviews, during
which he always gave a political overview at the conclusion. Twice during maneuvers I
was his aide-de-camp for several days and was lucky enough to observe this outstanding
personality up close. There is no light, however, without shadows. Even Seeckt’s
leadership had its flaws. He did nothing for the broader political education of the officer
corps; he never clarified the military’s relationship to the constitution. Blind obedience
seemed to make such understanding unnecessary. It was taken for granted that one kept
one’s oath and no discussion was needed.
Seeckt’s major military weakness was tactics, in which he had no interest. He was not a
modern soldier. The cavalry kept their lances; the infantry retained the Präsentiergriff4 and
the Exerziermarsch.5 This is why our infantry was more modernly trained at the end of
World War I than it was at the beginning of World War II.
By the time Seeckt was forced to resign in 1926 after committing a political blunder, he
had fulfilled his duty.6 By that point he had given us everything he had to give. He was at
the zenith of his glory. Everything from that point on depended on his successor, who had
to keep developing the legacy. The appropriate successor could have been General
Reinhardt. He was not Seeckt’s political equal, but militarily he was a tactical genius and
he would have complemented perfectly Seeckt, the strategist.
Unfortunately Reinhardt did not want to do it, so General Wilhelm Heye became
Seeckt’s successor. Heye had served with distinction in senior General Staff assignments
on the eastern front. During the events at Spa when the Kaiser abdicated in 1918, Heye
had exercised clear judgment and demonstrated the courage of his own convictions. As the
military district commander in East Prussia he had all elements of the population from left
to right convinced of the necessity of a defensive stance against Poland.
Unfortunately, Heye moved into the psychological realm and he wanted to create more
modern forms of discipline. As a result, every black sheep in the army turned to Heye,
who became known as the “Father of all Soldiers.” The result was serious internal
disruption in the army. When Heye finally offered a silver watch to anybody in the army
who uncovered communist activities, he lost all credibility in the officer corps. The ability
to lead human beings is not always directly proportional to other highly developed
capabilities. Groener in his memoirs judged Heye quite harshly, and with some
justification.
On the positive side, Heye pressed ahead with the development of modern arms and he
accomplished a great deal that was not immediately obvious to the troops, but which paid
off much later. Heye was succeeded by General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, a highly
capable but notoriously lazy officer. His Berlin-style flippancy did not go over too well in
southern Germany. I had many encounters with Heye and Hammerstein. They could not
hold a candle to Seeckt, but they still impressed me.
The State within the State
Among the accusations that politicians hurled at the military over and over was the charge
that we were a state within the state. There is an element of truth in this. As long as both
the right and the left formed their own paramilitary organizations and tried to pull the
regular troops over to their side to support a coup, the army had no other choice than to
isolate itself from all sides. On top of that, the army was spat upon from all directions,
making it unlikely that we would align ourselves with those doing the spitting. The
problem of the state within the state always comes back to the old issue that life consists
of actions and reactions.
In 1923 social democracy missed a great domestic political opportunity, with Seeckt
exercising his dictatorial powers in the most loyal way and relinquishing power to Ebert.
There was a chance to recognize the military and change the attitudes toward it. But
nothing happened. In contrast, the majority of the socialists, oddly enough, voted for the
defense budget. An opportunity for a domestic political settlement was missed.
Philipp Scheidemann7 once said, “The military must learn to follow the civilian
authority blindly.” Later in the National Assembly he also said, “You can see that we are
about to grab these gentlemen [the officers] by their collars.” Eduard David8 said, “What
we need to do most is to destroy the moral prestige that the officer corps surrounds itself
with.” With public statements of that sort, the MSPD9 could hardly expect enthusiastic
support from the military. On the contrary, they produced some excellent building blocks
for the state-within-the-state. Too often it is forgotten that an army has a soul and a life of
its own that cannot be trampled upon without consequences. If that happens, no one
should be surprised by unintended consequences.
The Republic
Another area of conflict was the attitude toward the republic. The idea of a republic was
new in Germany. There were no glorious examples for it in our history. On the contrary,
the concept was tainted, rightfully or not, with the “Stab in the Back,” the lost war, and the
Versailles treaty. Reasonable individuals like Ebert wanted to let the wounds heal over
time. Despite their socialist backgrounds, they only reluctantly supported the founding of
the republic. But at the time neither violence, nor lip service, nor education seemed to
work. The republican did actually prevail in the Prussian police force. Severing frequently
praised the Prussian police as the republican model for the Reichswehr. That all came to
an end, however, with the fall of Franz von Papen’s government.10
Values are a tender plant. They take a great deal of time to develop. If the process is
rushed, it fails. When many people sense a coming change, they will be quick to jump on
the bandwagon. People’s convictions are not rigid. They are quite changeable. The less
time they are allowed to develop, the worse will be the train wreck when it comes. This is
where Hitler later failed, too. A firm and clear character is far more important than the
correct conviction. The former is recognizable and can be included in the equation.
Convictions cannot.
The Prussian police failed because of these fundamentally psychological errors. For us
in the military conviction was immaterial, but character was everything. The army had
learned from the Kapp Putsch. It had drawn and internalized two important lessons: if an
army gets involved in politics, it will self-destruct; and nobody in modern Germany can
govern in opposition to the workers. There was only one way to make the republic
popular, and that was to convince people by accomplished success. That route, however,
was blocked.
Militarism
Militarism is an objectively unjustifiable overemphasis of military matters over the
requirements of politics. As a popular catchword it has a deadly political effect that blocks
effective thought and discourse. In the prisoner of war camps after 1945 a short and
appropriate saying made the rounds to the effect that a militarist is a professional soldier
who has just lost a war. At the highest levels politics and the conduct of war will always
affect and interact with each other. The question of which of the two should be given
preference in any given case will often be controversial, even though in most if not all
situations the political arm must be the controlling element. A balancing authority is
necessary, such as King Wilhelm during the German Wars of Unification. That authority
could be a state president, a war cabinet, or a special commission. Exactly what form that
authority will take cannot be mandated by a law. Each case will depend on the situation
and the personalities involved.
Rarely has the question how militarism develops been studied, even though it is the
really decisive question. This part of the problem of militarism is hardly ever examined.
Politicians are most willing to blame the soldier, who in turn is used to remaining silent.
That is why I see the problem of militarism thusly—the militarist comes into existence
when the political arm fails, as was the case in Germany in 1914–1918, and when the
soldier is abused. Naturally, war is too serious of a business to let politicians or soldiers
mess with it like a bull in a china shop. But with the failure of politics, Chancellor
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg created the militarist Ludendorff, and during the Thirty
Years’ War the Habsburgs created Wallenstein.
Politics Again
Even though we were screened off from politics, we nevertheless were politically
interested. Actually, we followed foreign politics quite closely, being concerned about our
hopeless military situation. Here was our one hundred thousand-man army facing armies
on our borders numbering in the millions. Our enemies did not even have to mobilize.
They easily could have squashed us with their peacetime forces. Even the smallest mistake
in politics could well have cost us our lives. It was not a good feeling.
We had similar fears in domestic politics. One hundred thousand men were not nearly
enough to deal with a civil war. The reliability of the police everywhere was hard to judge.
Should we rely on the paramilitary organizations? Each of those organizations came with
their share of problems. Cooperating with the Red Front was out of the question. The
Stahlhelm11 organization would put us in direct conflict with the labor movement, even
though they were the closest to us politically. The Reichsbanner Schwarz Rot Gold12 took
such a confrontational position against us that any kind of cooperation with them was
impossible. And nobody knew what the goals of the SA13 were. Besides, we were looking
for a quiet transformation, not a revolution.
What we knew of the developing communist power was impressive. I remember seeing
a demonstration where good-looking, well-disciplined columns in the strength of a
division marched through Stuttgart. I also saw much the same thing in Berlin. We knew
that these people were relatively well armed. The parties that formed the government, the
Centrists, the Social Democrats, and the Democrats, had lost much of their credibility. I
thought Alfred Hugenberg14 was an especially unfortunate character. He had gathered
together under the German National People’s Party all the old forces that had supported
the state. But rather than leading the way ahead, he tried to return everything to the way it
had been. The future, however, lay before us—not behind us. Thus, Hugenberg did not
creatively address the problem of the positive integration of the workers into the whole of
society. But that was the key problem. Whoever managed to integrate the German workers
owned the future. The Conservatives’ slogan, “The worker does not care who he is
governed by as long as the outcome is good and just,” completely missed the mark.
Germany’s inner political turmoil even divided families. Captain (later field marshal)
Erwin von Witzleben, for example, was a monarchist, his wife a National Socialist, and
his children were communists. Even two of General von Hammerstein’s daughters were
communists. Thus, for the German Army to avoid falling totally apart and becoming
incapable of playing a national role, the only solution for us was the “state within the
state.”
The army’s firm consolidation of its position, its sharp focus on the bigger picture, its
elevated position vis-à-vis the political parties, and its independence from the influence of
economic special interests were all factors in the military’s almost automatic evolution
from being a state within the state to becoming the actual power within the state—a power
that could not be ignored. Naturally, our critics held all this against us, but they themselves
had proved totally incapable of developing any other solution to Germany’s social and
political problems. They were the very ones who elevated us into this position.
Cultural Life
Commenting on life in the officer corps, Schopenhauer once wrote that one only talked
about women, horses, and dogs. Well of course we talked about those topics. But I also
must point out that life in the officer corps as I knew it during my whole period of service
was characterized by an extremely high level of intellectual sophistication. Before the
First World War the many reserve officers that came from all walks of life livened up the
conversations in the officers’ messes. The informal discussions touched on almost all
subjects. Because of the informal nature of the conversations, civilians who happened to
be present also contributed to the discussions, which in turn expanded the horizons of the
soldiers.
Unfortunately, things were not quite the same during the period of the Reichswehr, but
we nonetheless had many diverse opportunities. Stuttgart, with its many theaters and
lectures, had a great deal to offer. We exploited such opportunities, which often ended in
long discussions at the officers’ mess. One of our favorite civilian venues was the German
Gentlemen’s Round Table, where gentlemen from all professions met each Thursday
evening. The military was especially well represented. Everyone who attended was
required to give a presentation and then defend it.
Duty obligations were demanding as well. Once every winter each officer was
challenged to produce a paper, conduct a sand table exercise, or give a presentation. I
usually gave presentations that dealt with operational issues. But we also were required to
address civilian topics every other year. One year my friend Ulrich Kleemann gave an
extremely good presentation on financial matters. Later, during World War II, Kleemann
was the commanding general on the island of Rhodes when it became necessary to replace
the Italian government in 1943. He managed to stabilize the local currency with some very
clever measures, and thus maintained the peace among the restless populace. One winter I
prepared a rather substantial piece on “The History of the German Labor Movement.” The
paper gave me a chance to deal in depth with the entire body of socialist writing, and the
personalities of Marx, Lassalle, and Lenin. In preparation, I had a subscription to the
social democratic newspaper Vorwärts for a whole year. The paper was sent forward to the
highest leadership levels as an example of a well-crafted analysis.
Naturally the question of joining the General Staff came up. Twice while serving in
temporary General Staff assignments I achieved the necessary qualifications to transfer to
the General Staff. The second time the chief of staff of our 3rd Cavalry Division really
wanted me to transfer. I, however, always resisted strongly. I loved the frontline life, the
direct contact with the soldiers and the horses, working with living beings, and the handson training with the troops. Becoming a second stringer, as so often happened in the
General Staff, was not for me.15
Besides, as a member of the General Staff I could not have pursued the many diverse
intellectual interests I enjoyed so much. Even my military interests, particularly military
history, I was able to better pursue on my personal time. As a General Staff officer one too
often was drowned in bureaucratic office work. I never regretted the decision.
I did a great deal of writing during those years. I turned my notes from my war
experiences into several articles. I also wrote an extensive treatise on the Russo-Polish
War, in which I believe I analyzed correctly the Russian operational concepts, which were
based on exhausting the enemy’s reserves by cleverly committing Russia’s sheer human
masses. By World War II the Russians were still trying to do much the same thing. I was
particularly interested in questions of organizational psychology. Everyone at the time was
opposed to such thinking, and nobody wanted to provide personnel for the necessary
experiments. I went in the opposite direction and provided any number of personnel
required for countless studies. Soon I became convinced that applied psychological
research provided an especially effective tool against nepotism and against the infiltration
of undesirable candidates into the officer corps. The officer candidate year groups that
were psychologically tested were of the best quality throughout. They could not have been
selected more carefully.
The personnel management system was further developed to a high level during the
period of the one hundred thousand-man army. One of the most significant innovations
was the introduction of order-of-merit lists. Every commander was required to evaluate
and rank his officers. The division would then consolidate all of its regimental lists. That
process required getting to know your subordinates. The process for filling positions
included ranking each candidate at the regimental level; inspection of his squadron by the
division commander; participation in a divisional field exercise, to include a presentation;
leading a unit; ranking on the divisional order of merit list; and passing a selection test by
the command group. Those unsuited for the assignment always failed to make one of those
cuts. No other army has managed to achieve what the thirty-six hundred-strong officer
corps of the one hundred thousand-man army accomplished during World War II in terms
of training, organizing, and developing tactical and operational leadership. This was
largely the product of the Reichswehr’s personnel selection process.
During this time I also received my first assignment in a foreign country. I was detailed
to the Swiss Army with the task of evaluating pack animals in their cavalry units. During
my time with the Alpenkorps in the First World War I had had extensive experience in this
area. The Swiss gave me a delightful reception. I was quite impressed with what they were
able to accomplish with their short-term enlistments and their militia facilities. Their
enlisted soldiers were in the best physical condition and the officers were dedicated and
capable. It was quite clear, however, that their highly developed military knowledge in
some areas was a direct result of the fact that they had been on constant alert status during
World War I. At that point, then, they were no longer really a militia force. A live fire
exercise I observed was comparable to ours.
Political discussions naturally ensued, and it was pleasant to see that the Swiss officers
with whom I dealt made an effort to balance the German and French elements of their
national character. They did express a high regard for the Reichswehr and for German
accomplishments during the war. Years later, one of those Swiss officers was attached to
us and I spent some time with him during a maneuver. When we touched on politics again
he admitted to very strong National Socialist leanings. When I expressed my astonishment
to hear this from a Swiss, he responded, “We have not been separated from Germany all
that long. We still are Germans.”
10
In the Third Reich
30 January 1933
The Weimar Republic ended in perpetual crisis. In the end the choice was between
Communism and National Socialism. All other parties had ruined themselves and had no
more support among the people. The last attempt by Kurt von Schleicher1 to split National
Socialism and thus build a sustainable majority failed because of the hostile attitude of the
unions. Democratic means were depleted. What remained was a choice between a military
dictatorship and a civil war. No one wanted the latter, and in any event, it would have been
impossible to conduct a civil war with a one hundred thousand-man army. It is always an
unfortunate development when an army takes over as the political leadership, but it would
have been one of those situations where the political element had to yield to the soldier.
This meant either a Communist or a National Socialist government, and at that point only
Hitler seemed to remain. The stupidity and hatred of the authors of the Versailles treaty
had left Germany with inadequate means of power, resulting in this unwanted situation.
We regarded National Socialism with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we judged
positively the fact that it had broadly succeeded in breaking the socialist labor movement
and had established an opportunity for resolving the confusing state of domestic politics.
But on the negative side, we did not know if National Socialism had the necessary
qualified people to take over the government. Up to that point it had not been able to stand
that test. The National Socialists managed to gain a foothold in the local governments only
in Thuringia and Brunswick. In Germany political movements only achieve power when
they get so large that they can no longer be ignored, rather than allowing them to gain
experience on the local government level, which would give them the necessary education
as professional politicians and the right sense of reality. And then we wondered why
things went wrong.
Naturally we did not see things as clearly as the one man who was not a politician, at
least not in the eyes of his opponents. On 3 July 1932, Ludendorff wrote in his own
weekly Volkswarte magazine: “The violent coup d’état will come as it did in 1918;
however, no delegate of the people will arrive in time to prevent the bloodbath. Instead of
a people’s delegate, Herr Hitler will arrive, who just like the previous delegates will claim
to represent the popular will, but who will not be capable of quelling the bloodlust that he
and his chief of staff2 inculcated in the SA and the SS. After ten to twelve years the
Germans will recognize that the revolution of 1932–1933 was a deceit of the people, just
like the revolution of 1918, except an even bigger one.”3
Why had Weimar failed? First and foremost there was the stupidity of the politics of
Versailles, sustained by France with the goal of creating chaos in Germany, thereby
turning it into a French-dominated zone of powerlessness in the middle of Europe. What
the French politicians failed to see was that Bolshevism rather than France would be the
only beneficiary of such a policy. Then as now, the words of Prince Eugene of Savoy
remain true: “If you destroy Germany, you invite Asia into Europe.”
The constitution of the Weimar Republic was itself a problem. It was a theoretical
compilation of all the democratic ideals that would work only if all humans were angels. A
constitution should bring to bear the positive characteristics of a people and
counterbalance their flaws. If it does not account for real human nature, one should not be
surprised by what follows. The inherent flaws of the German people were not accounted
for by the Weimar Constitution. It was similar to the situation where the Belgian
Constitution of 1830 was copied by many other young states as the ideal of a modern
democratic constitution. It worked in those states only for the short run because the
imitators themselves were not Belgian.
Social Democracy had its own unique history in Germany. For seventy years it had
been allowed to agitate unchecked, making promises, all on the assumption that it would
never find itself in a position where it would have to pay the piper. The movement had
inherited its unholy legacy from Bismarck, whose ineptness in domestic politics had
divided Germans into state-supporting factions and enemies of the Reich. Under Bismarck
not even the position of a night watchman was open to a Social Democrat. After socialist
leader Ferdinand Lasalle was killed in a duel in 1864, Bismarck’s antisocialism laws
crushed all national ambitions within the labor movement. Fortunately, Bismarck was
prevented from pursuing his solution of bloody suppression of the labor movement by the
young Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Nonetheless, the unfortunate legacy remained, and even the
Kaiser eventually shifted to an anti–Social Democratic course. This basic criticism also
applies to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf.4
One can only wonder how the Social Democratic movement managed to produce so
many creative statesmen at the top. I’m thinking here of Friedrich Ebert, Gustav Noske,
Carl Severing, Giselher Wirsing, and Otto Hörsing, among others. But they could not
prevail against the party’s demagogical wing, like Philipp Scheidemann and others, and
the majority of party functionaries continued on in their old ways. It was comfortable and
there was a reluctance to shunt aside the “old warriors.”
Groener once made an interesting observation about the Social Democrats. On 26
October 1917 my father wrote to me about a conversation he had with Groener, when they
were both in command of adjacent divisions on the western front. “He [Groener] spoke in
rather praising terms of the intellectual abilities of most Social Democratic
representatives, something which was lacking with the Conservatives and the National
Liberals.”
After Hitler came to power we in the military did not at first notice any significant
changes. Everything seemed to remain the same. Of course, we had not noticed that
Hindenburg in later years had been leaning increasingly on General Schleicher, later
making him the chancellor. The one change that we did notice immediately was that all
those that had been kicked out of the army because of theft or other illegal actions were
now pursuing their reinstatement or the applications for their pensions, claiming that they
really had been separated because they had been loyal National Socialists. After 1945 a
considerable number of these people approached me asking for affidavits confirming that
they had left the military because of their anti-fascist activities. Unfortunately for them, I
have an excellent memory. Spying on the political convictions of those in the military did
not exist before or after the change in power. I do not know of any case where someone
was kicked out because of his political conviction.
Farewells are always difficult. A long period of service as a squadron commander
creates the strongest bonds with the people you worked with. The regiment’s officer corps
was also first rate. It consisted of members of all the German tribes, and proved the falsity
of the cherished belief that each German tribe can only be led by officers from that same
tribe.5 What distinguished the officers of the regiment most was the absence of
rumormongering and personal envy. We had a special sense of esprit, a real and sincere
camaraderie—even though everybody was not necessarily friends with everybody else.
Divisional Adjutant
The chief of staff of the 3rd Cavalry Division, Colonel Gustav von Wietersheim,6 came to
Defense District III as the chief of the General Staff and initiated my transfer into his
section, the newly emerging territorial staff of the 1st Cavalry Division. He was trying to
position me and move me from there into the General Staff officer career field.
Unfortunately, I had to disappoint him. At the decisive moment I asked to remain with
troops.
At Frankfurt on the Oder River, where the 1st Cavalry Division was headquartered, I
was responsible for establishing area defense commands and similar organizations. After
half a year, in the spring of 1934, the 1st Cavalry Division was restationed at Potsdam and
I remained in Frankfurt with Lieutenant Colonel Maximilian Fretter-Pico,7 the Ia,8 to form
the core of the staff of the newly forming 3rd Division. The division commander was
Colonel Curt Haase,9 from the Württemberg region. A man of high military skills and
remarkable character, he was most supportive on personnel issues, which were mostly my
area of responsibility. Unfortunately, he had the characteristically sharp and sarcastic
Württemberg sense of humor that could come across as abrasive in northern Germany. He
knew it and had told me, “Whenever you notice that I am about to say something
inappropriate, just hiss lightly.” Sometimes I could not hiss fast enough to prevent the
biting but always perfectly telling comments. Haase displayed a lot of backbone when it
came to dealing with the Nazi Party. Within a year a whole set of party functionaries had
been expended against us. Haase once said to an SA-Obergruppenführer10 who had just
arrived in Frankfurt right after the Röhm Putsch11: “Just so that we are clear, I am a
reactionary, which means I do not steal.” Once again I had not hissed fast enough, but our
visitor asserted sheepishly that he would try his best to see that this would not be an issue
in his area.
East Brandenburg was a politically difficult region, and unfortunately we now had a lot
to do with politics. Our small staff discussed all the problems. Frequently the initial
discussions were between Fretter-Pico and myself during our early morning rides, and
then later again with our divisional commander. The biggest political issue was a function
of the fact that all the border security forces, which were local militia organizations, were
subordinate to us, but the SA tried to meddle in everything.
Eastern Germany was an old colonial land that was different from the rest of the
country in the way that land and property were distributed—a system perceived by many
as unjust. When the class of large estate owners12 becomes politically active and rules in
an authoritarian fashion, tensions develop that easily can lead to revolution and the violent
redistribution of land ownership. That is what happened in Russia. In the east of Germany
the political contrasts were especially sharp and often bitter. The atmosphere was totally
different from Germany west of the Elbe River. The fact that the former Prussian
administration had been especially efficient, good, and just carried little weight now and
did not particularly interest those elements that were still locked out of participating in
government and administration. Even though the conditions had changed outwardly since
1918, the underlying resentments were still there. We had to deal with these conditions
and work around them, because the border security mission deeply affected the daily life
and social conditions of the local population.
The Röhm Putsch
At the beginning of 1934, relations with the SA deteriorated sharply. Their attempts to
infiltrate the border security units, to assume military leadership positions, and to obtain
weapons became increasingly violent. The SA was morphing more and more into a
military organization, conducting exercises at the battalion and regimental levels. They
formed engineer and signal units. The SA Standarten13 units assumed the traditional
lineages of old army units. We learned about a very secret organizational order from the
highest command levels directing the SA to convert into a militia army.14 In the spring of
1934 the SA activated special units consisting of hooligans and specially selected thugs.
Undoubtedly, they were being organized for revolution. When one army officer happened
to mention to an SA leader that he would be transferring to Küstrin that fall as part of the
build-up of army units, the retort was that the “transfer would be more likely as a
prisoner.” Warning indicators also came from our border security units.
The situation became nightmarish for us. We expected an explosion at any moment,
with supposed dates being thrown around. We no longer entrusted important orders to the
mail system, and we restricted phone conversations to general daily business. Several
times I traveled back and forth to the area defense command in Berlin with important
messages and orders as a courier, each time by a different route. I was always met by an
officer at a different location. In the beginning I only took a pistol with me, but later I
always traveled with an armed escort. When the situation finally exploded at Bad Wiessee
on 30 June, it was a relief for us. In his memoirs Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who
at the time was the chief of staff of the Area Defense Command III in Berlin, described the
situation in similar terms.
Contrary to all expectations, everything remained calm in Frankfurt. There were no
executions or riots in all of eastern Brandenburg. Under pressure from the alerted army
troops and the SS units, the SA did not dare to put up any resistance. What happened then
was a typical German about-face, where nobody had known anything; nobody had
participated; and Röhm, who had only recently held godlike status, was now a long-known
scoundrel. But we knew what had been said previously, and what was being said now.
Much has been written and said about the suppression of the Röhm Putsch. After 1945
a weak attempt was even made to depict the Röhm Putsch as resistance against Hitler and
recast it as something positive. In historical terms, the Röhm Putsch was an episode that
every revolution will lead to inevitably. The driving, hard-hitting forces that brought the
movement to power continue to press on, while the leadership that does not need them
anymore and now wants to turn its ideals into reality has to restrain its own revolutionary
forces. This is a problem that only can be resolved with ruthless use of force. In Russia a
small, tightly organized minority of eleven thousand had won against the moderate masses
of 150 million because nobody acted and Kerensky did nothing to help the advance of
Russian politics. Thus in Germany, the emerging brown Bolshevism was eradicated.
Naturally, there was bitter criticism from some quarters, mostly by the very people who
had every reason to be thankful that the SA had been suppressed during the “Night of the
Long Knives”15 because they probably would not have survived it.
World history generally does not repeat itself, but in this case it perhaps did. There are
parallels to Wallenstein’s assassination, even in the details. In both cases, the elimination
of the key personalities ran the risks of armed resistance and foreign political
consequences. Both Wallenstein and Röhm had been operating in opposition to official
policies. When they were eliminated physically, there was reason to fear that the regiments
loyal to Wallenstein would intervene, just as we feared the SA’s loyalty to Röhm. On the
foreign political level, there was the fear in Wallenstein’s case that Swedish-Protestant
forces would take advantage of the situation to intervene; while in the case of Röhm the
concern was interference by France.
A few years after World War II, SS-Oberstgruppenführer16 Josef “Sepp” Dietrich was
tried and convicted by the West German government for his role in issuing Röhm’s
execution order. This came as a surprise to people who knew the details of the situation.
Dietrich was an upstanding human being. He was highly respected in the Wehrmacht. He
was a good leader later in the war and he always tried to balance matters between Hitler
and the Wehrmacht. I still hold him in high esteem.17
After the Revolt
After the suppression of the Röhm Putsch the air cleared for the most part. Röhm’s demise
was well received and the attitude toward the Nazi regime became increasingly rather
positive in the Wehrmacht. We were aware of all the talk and chatter throughout the
country, but the most common reaction was disbelief. Of all the gossip we heard, 70
percent was clearly false, 20 percent was exaggeration to the point of uselessness, and 10
percent may have been true.
A much more serious consequence was the fact that anti-Hitler feelings started to center
around Colonel General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch. Many people started to believe that
Fritsch would be the one to fix the situation; that he was keeping quiet for now, but he
would strike; Fritsch was the man. In discussions among the staff, I occasionally
mentioned that this could not possibly turn out well. Every member of the Nazi Party
heard the same rumors, often in an even more malicious and distorted form. I remain
convinced that the main reason for the nasty Fritsch Affair18 that came later was the many
idiotic rumors floating throughout the country. The result at the highest levels had to be
mistrust, which was deliberately stoked by those who circulated the rumors. I learned my
lesson during that period. From that point on I refused to give any credence to any
political rumors and turned a deaf ear toward all such uselessness.
First Encounter with Hitler
An official letter arrived, addressed to Haase, our division commander. He called FretterPico and me into his office and handed the letter to us, which announced that Hitler would
be visiting Frankfurt. We were supposed to put the program together. Haase handed the
letter to me and said, “Take care of this and tell me the evening before what is going on.”
It was a pleasure to work for somebody like General Haase. I had a totally free hand. I
drove to the district commanding general’s headquarters, and to Hitler’s administrative
office, discussed everything, and then it all ran its course. Hitler refused to allow the local
Nazi Party officials to participate. The security measures were interesting; they were
simple and effective and relied mainly on the visit being a complete surprise.
We received Hitler at the train station with an honor guard company and then held a
pass in review with a large element of the division. Then he visited the newly constructed
barracks, in which he was very interested, particularly the concrete-reinforced roofs that
provided protection against incendiary bombs. He had not known about that particular
feature, and it was remarkable how quickly he grasped everything. Asking objective
questions, he drew conclusions for civilian air-raid protection and residential construction,
converted everything into numbers, and clearly formulated it all.
Then we had coffee in the Führer’s train. Hitler became clearly more relaxed,
mentioning in discussion the various Nazi Party leaders in Frankfurt: “Does Kube still act
like a peacock?”19 Hitler listened to our problems and he promised resolutions, which
promptly occurred within forty-eight hours. Then we all had dinner in the officers’ mess. I
had arranged for everybody to be sitting at small tables. Besides the division commander,
only young captains sat at Hitler’s table. After dinner Hitler moved into a side room and
sat at a large round table with all the best second and first lieutenants of the division.
Hitler was very relaxed in this atmosphere and lost all his stiffness. The lieutenants were
not shy either. Hitler spoke very openly about his recent trip to Venice to meet Mussolini,
where il Duce had treated him particularly badly. “If he only had some kind of real
misfortune, I would be happy about that,” Hitler said. A Grand Tattoo20 held in front of
the division commander’s quarters then concluded Hitler’s successful and first visit with
the Wehrmacht.
In the fall of 1935 my time in Frankfurt came to an end. I was assigned as the
commander of a newly formed Bicycle Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division. Haase also
left Frankfurt. He assumed command of a division in Nuremberg, where his strong
personality was needed to counterbalance the Gauleiter, Julius Streicher.21 Hitler’s earlier
visit to Frankfurt factored in that move. I regretted parting ways with Haase. I had learned
a lot from this brilliant, steadfast soldier.
Tilsit
Even though I had spent my final school years in Thorn, East Prussia was largely
unknown to me. But I enjoyed going to “Siberia,” and I never regretted it. My job was to
stand up the Bicycle Battalion, which was the only one in the Wehrmacht. Certain
experiences from my time with the Goslar Jägers gave me an advantage. I reported
directly to the brigade. My brigade commanders, first General Erich Volk, then General
Eberhard von Mackensen,22 were ideal superiors. They mostly left me a free hand and
were never stingy when it came to praise. I was able to enact all of my ideas about training
and education, while reducing to a minimum the time spent on drill and ceremony. The
maximum time was devoted to combat-focused training. The enlisted and the NCOs were
almost all former policemen, and were thus completely unencumbered by the old routines.
The officers of the unit quickly adjusted. The unit’s replacements came partly from East
Prussia, partly from the Rhineland, a particularly advantageous mixture. The East Prussian
was considered dumb and stubborn. I found the contrary to be true. Seven hundred years
of colonial regimentation created a human type that either said one thing and did the
opposite, or did what he thought was right, or executed every order verbatim. The latter
was the worst. But if you succeeded in breaking through this hard outer shell, you found a
totally different human being, self-sufficient and instinctively doing the right things. The
East Prussian was more in harmony with nature than anyone else in Germany and just as
talented as any German. On top of that, he had an appreciation for authority and loyalty
toward his officers. By playing on these strengths and not taking the formal kind of
classroom approach, we got results. I often heard my officers commenting: “We would
have never thought that you can accomplish this with East Prussians.”
Officer education followed the principles established by General Haase, and I gave
special attention to the noncommissioned officers. No one was promoted into the NCO
ranks unless he spent six months at the brigade’s special NCO training unit. All of the
brigade’s regiments sent their prospective NCOs to this unit, which had the strength of a
squadron and was led by Schwarze, an old police Wachtmeister, who had been accepted
into the army at the same rank. He had such natural authority and skill in leading human
beings that there never was a single disruptive incident, nor did I ever have to intervene.
He was, a most unique case, later promoted from Wachtmeister to Rittmeister and put in
command of a squadron. When I later established an NCO school for mobile troops in
Warsaw, I had him transferred there.
This training produced an important side effect. The NCO who knows his business
does not scream or mistreat his troops. If he understands the importance of making duty
interesting, that eliminates a key cause of mistreatment. Another of the worst kinds of
maltreatment occurs when a sadist and a masochist meet. A leader can be relatively
powerless in dealing with this kind of erotic interplay. The only defense against this sort of
problem is a good knowledge of human behavior, with which not everybody is equipped.
Psychological analysis can alert the leader to such personalities and can prompt him to
monitor and manage them accordingly. The third source of maltreatment of subordinates is
emotional outbursts by people who are still young and imbalanced. The latter can happen
frequently and it is best not to take it too seriously. A well-trained NCO is the best remedy
for such cases.
Culturally East Prussia had a lot to offer. I offered sanctuary at the officers’ mess for
the men’s social club that had been disbanded by the Kreisleiter.23 They met there twice a
month for presentations and discussions. Thanks to my connections with the German Club
in Berlin, I was able to invite to Tilsit distinguished men like Ambassador Rudolf
Nadolny.24 My objective was to broaden the awareness of the young officers, to challenge
them. I also encouraged hunting trips in East Prussia, although I always considered myself
a friend of nature and not a hunter. Hunting was part of the duty obligations. Nobody had
to take leave and we used military vehicles, although civilian clothes were authorized. The
result was increased social contacts with friendly local families, and it also prevented
anyone from getting into trouble from the boredom of Sundays in Tilsit. These initiatives
saved me from a lot of unnecessary trouble and resulted in a highly motivated group of
junior officers.
I had an interesting encounter at the castle of Count von Lehndorf in Steinort, where I
met American ambassador Hugh Wilson,25 who was accompanied by Dr. Rosenberg, the
secretary of the German Club. I talked with Wilson at length about the question of the
Sudetenland.26 He favored the reintegration of the Sudetenland with Germany, as indeed
soon happened. He explained that at Versailles, where he had been a member of the
negotiation team, there had been a great deal of pressure to give the Sudetenland to
Czechoslovakia.
Germans only have one enemy, and that is other Germans; and the Americans have an
enviable lack of knowledge of things outside of America. One of the ambassador’s aides
tried to sound me out on the Blomberg Affair. I answered: “There is a lot of talk going on
in Berlin, but we are not interested in it. We believe what Hitler says.”
That, of course, was a “Right or wrong, my country” answer. Among ourselves, it was
a different story. We judged Blomberg very harshly. His actions had hit us like a blow
from a club. He had destroyed Hitler’s high opinion of the officer corps, and everyone
instinctively felt that irreparable damage had been done.27
We stood by Fritsch, but I did not believe that it would have been possible to act
against the government in that situation. That would have amounted to a coup d’état
against Hitler, which most likely would not have been supported by the enlisted soldiers
and large numbers of the younger officers, the Luftwaffe, or the Kriegsmarine. Fritsch was
too far removed from the mass of the soldiers, and soldiers cannot be ordered to do
something like that unless their hearts are in it. This is a situation most civilians cannot
understand, and probably never will.
During my time in Tilsit, I had two periods of service in a foreign country lasting from
four to six weeks. One was in Finland and the other in Hungary to study their bicycle
units. The Finns were especially good. I had the most favorable impressions and was well
received by my Finnish comrades. My family, after all, had its roots there. One of my
ancestors had been the fourth bishop of Finland around A.D. 1300. I gained valuable
insights into winter warfare that I could apply in my battalion. From then on, a bivouac in
-10 or -20 degrees Celsius lost its horrors for us.
Conditions had been very rough in Finland during their liberation from Bolshevism in
1917. Countless Finnish communists had been eliminated during the struggle, but in the
1930s their sons were now entering military service. Their political views were of great
concern, and everything was done to instill in them a national pride in their fatherland.
Part of this process was the “Border Baptism,” in which the soldier was immersed in a
river on the Russian-Finnish border and had to swear eternal enmity to Bolshevism and
fidelity to Finland. The Finns honored me with a Border Baptism, an exceptional
recognition for a German officer.
Even though they were at peace, bullets often strayed across the Finno-Soviet border,
and on occasion there was an exchange of fire during the “baptism” ceremony. When I
was given my ceremony in German uniform two machine guns provided the cover, and
everything remained calm. At another point along the border, a place called “Sisters
Creek,” both sides had painted the bridge red and white on their respective halves. As we
stood on the bridge we could hear the Russian border guard phoning to the rear,
“Germansky Offizier!” I came back to Germany with varied impressions of Finland.
The Hungarians were quite different. They practice a very strict but superficial
discipline at the dog-training level that killed all initiative. Even though there was hardly
any of the warlike influence remaining from Árpád28 in today’s Hungary, the Hungarians
still retained the characteristics of a Steppe people. Time and space had no meaning for
them. If something was scheduled for 0700 hours, it could happen at 0600, at 0930, or not
at all. The only sure thing is that it would not happen at 0700. Despite their origins, the
Hungarians had a certain softness and were highly sensitive to unfavorable weather
conditions. Whenever a Hungarian soldier did not want to make a movement far from his
post, he would report “strong enemy resistance” even though nobody was there. Battle
reports frequently were falsified.
Command posts were usually established in a tavern far to the rear, which inevitably
led to incorrect command and staff actions. The Hungarian General Staff officers were
promoted quickly and ahead of more senior officers. I often heard the line officers saying,
“Why should I do this? We have General Staff officers for this.” The Hussar regiments
were a rare exception. The effectiveness of the troops also increased significantly when a
commander known as a hard charger was on the scene.
I submitted a very harsh report on the Hungarian Army, doubting their ability to
conduct operations outside of Hungarian territory. The structures of the Hungarian state
and society were still stuck in a feudal medieval system. The General Staff’s director of
the Foreign Armies Department at the time was Major General Kurt von Tippelskirch.
Later, during World War II, whenever I ran into him he would tell me, “You were the only
one who judged the Hungarians correctly. They are exactly as you described them.”
Otherwise, the events in the Reich did not influence East Prussia very much. It was
much like living on an island. The big news stories, the occupation of the Rhineland, the
annexation of Austria, the incorporation of the Sudetenland, did not affect us in our daily
routines. We consequently did not know anything about the troop alerts for a potential
coup d’état during the crisis over the Sudetenland. I thought and still think today that
something like that could not have been pulled off. A universal draft army cannot be used
in domestic politics against a strong popular movement. Any attempt to do so creates a
horrible crisis in which the army and the state get sucked into civil war and chaos. The
politician always believes that all it takes is to win over one or the other general, who then
issues his orders and everything runs its course. The impossibility of such was shown
clearly by the events of November 1918. It would not have ended any differently in 1936.
At the Ministry
In the fall of 1938, I was transferred to the ministry as the operations officer of the cavalry
branch. This office was being reorganized as I reported for duty. The Operations Branch
became part of the newly established Mobile Troops Department, which was subordinate
to the inspector of army motorization, Colonel Adolf von Schell.29 I was given much
independence in all my areas of responsibility. I dealt not only with cavalry matters, but
also with motorized rifle regiments and reconnaissance battalions. At the time the old
cavalry branch wanted to convert the cavalry division into a modern form of light division.
I was handed thick files dealing with the light division concept. The files, in my opinion,
reflected the German bias for purely operational thinking. The light divisions were fast
and maneuverable, but they had no capability to hit hard. Their firepower consisted of an
updated version of mounted artillery and accompanying machine gun sections. In real
battle weapons with a solid punch always produce better results. From my own experience
in the first war, I still knew what cavalry divisions were like. Although they were mobile
and often exquisitely led, they stood little chance against a well-armed enemy. I thought it
best to let the idea of a light division die slowly. The Poland campaign subsequently
proved their uselessness, and they were reorganized into Panzer divisions.
The remaining cavalry units were bogged down with heavy equipment. The existing
saddles and saddlebags were extremely heavy and robbed the cavalry of its mobility. I was
able to break some new ground here. The new saddlebag was lighter when loaded than the
old one had been when empty. It no longer sat in front of the saddle, but behind, where it
could not pinch the horse. Machine guns and ammunition, which had been carried on the
same horse with the trooper, were now carried by pack animals. I selected special mules
from the mountain units for this function. They had the advantage of the appropriate
physical condition and could not be misused as riding or race horses.
I also introduced some innovations in the area of organized sports. The traditional
German equestrian tournament, which was of relatively little use, was replaced by
combat-oriented mounted sports. The existing regulations for mounted units were based
on the agile horse in close combat. That world did not exist anymore. What was needed
now was a simplified regulation of horsemanship that concentrated on a horse capable of
moving over whatever ground it encountered. By the time World War II broke out we had
at least a few provisional mounted units that deployed with the new equipment.
I developed an excellent working relationship with Colonel von Schell. He held out the
prospect of me taking over the whole directorate in the foreseeable future. That meant that
I would have to get involved in the issues of the Panzer force. My working group had
developed the regulations for the tactics of units equipped with Schützenpanzerwagen
(armored personnel carriers). This regulation proved itself during World War II.
In the area of tank warfare I initially was only able to deal with the theory. In my
studies I had noticed that during World War I the rate of breakdowns in tanks was quite
high, while personnel losses were relatively low. What we needed, then, was a large
reserve of tanks. The new crews could be easily made up from crews brought back from
the front after their own tanks had been knocked out or had failed mechanically. Listening
to a presentation made by Colonel von Schell, it became clear to me that our tank
production was completely fragmented and without any significant output. We had built a
tank army, without establishing the necessary tank production lines. Our tank force was
hollow.30
I discussed this problem with Colonel von Schell. I estimated that we would need three
thousand tanks to conduct a successful operation, three thousand more to bring it to an end
after two weeks of operations, and another three thousand to consolidate our gains. We
would have to build four to five tank plants with a monthly capacity of 200 to 250 tanks
operating one shift, and upon mobilization add a second shift. The problem was that it was
already too late. We should have started earlier. Another problem was that the level of
steel production in Germany could not support this. In 1943, when it was really too late,
this whole issue came up again, but I was not part of the discussions then. The
consequences of a tank army without adequate tank plants became quite clear in the 1941
Battle of Moscow.
I also dealt with the question of an invincible one hundred-ton tank. I proceeded from
the assumption that we always had weapons that were too light, and in real battle there
always arose a need for heavy hitters. I have nothing against operational art, the great
German strength, but sometimes one cannot win without a big club. At Stalingrad a few
dozen one hundred-ton tanks possibly could have turned the situation around in the
fighting for the city. The same could have been true at Leningrad as well.
But all such issues at that point were for me highly speculative, contingent on Schell’s
ideas about putting me into that position. What was a reality were the rather disconcerting
power struggles within the ministry. Guderian’s Inspectorate of Mobile Troops was in
direct competition with Schell’s directorate. Since both gentlemen had opposing views and
nothing was decided at higher levels, the result was a rather unpleasant power struggle.
Since I was close to both of them, I was forced into the not always easy role of mediator.
My position was only easier because Guderian was receptive to any kind of open and
strong argument. He only saw the facts and was not at all vain or sensitive.
Schell, unfortunately, had certain guidance from the General Staff to constrain
Guderian. Even more unfortunately, the commander in chief of the army31 did not like to
make decisions and did not clarify his views and goals to everyone involved. These
internal power struggles severely impeded development.
In my work I also had frequent contact with the chief of the General Army Office,32
Colonel General Friedrich Fromm. I was soon on very good terms with him. He was a
generous and clear organizer. Germany was lucky to have him in that position.
War Breaks Out
The beginning of World War II naturally occurred outside of my world. Nevertheless, I do
have some after-the-fact assessments to offer. In the face of continuous publications by
well-known revisionist American historians, the thesis of Hitler’s sole guilt for the
outbreak of World War II can no longer be sustained. Roosevelt’s share in the guilt
becomes clearer as time goes on, and the fact remains that Hitler never wanted the war
with the western powers. He considered a strong British empire a necessity to maintain the
continuity of western civilization.33
Another chief culprit is the French chief of the General Staff, General Maurice
Gamelin. In France it had been the traditional procedure for generations to consult the
highest ranking soldier before deciding to go to war. Depending on his answer, whether a
successful war was feasible or not, the cabinet then decided. De facto, the decision over
war or peace was in the hands of that one French soldier. If he failed, as did the French
minister of war who in 1870 made the self-delusional declaration that the French army
was over prepared, then the policy failed. In 1939 General Gamelin, against his better
judgment, declared the French army fully ready for war. He did not want to go against the
policies of the government. His “No!” might have avoided the war in the proper old
French tradition. Strong personalities should be put in charge of a country’s armed forces,
even if they are rough and gruff and call a spade a spade. A highly educated, smart, but
spineless personality, Gamelin did not belong at the top.34
Two things made it easier for England to go to war: the assurance that Italian foreign
minister Galeazzo Ciano gave to the British ambassador in Rome that Italy would not
participate, and the influence of the German internal opposition. Via numerous channels
the English were assured that the National Socialist system would collapse within a few
days after the English declaration. I personally know individuals who before leaving
Germany for England praised Hitler loudly, but once they were in England were saying
something completely different. As a soldier you have the duty to oppose such people. In
the final analysis, it is the soldier who must pay the price with his own blood and the
blood of his troops.
Unfortunately, one of the lessons from both world wars is that the average German who
is not a direct member of the government thinks that he is free to cooperate with the
enemy. The fact that the sons of such people are bleeding on the battlefield and
performing their duties is one of those incomprehensible irrationalities of life. The phrase
“Right or wrong, my country”35 is unfortunately not in the German lexicon.
And Hitler… ? He thought that he could play the same game with Poland that he had
played with Czechoslovakia. Napoleon once said that one must change his tactics every
ten years, otherwise they become ineffective. Today it is necessary to change much faster
and more substantially. Poland would not fall the way Czechoslovakia did. In attempting
to do so, Germany’s intentions would be obvious, while the opposition would be far less
predictable. But Hitler preferred to operate this way, instead of seeking alternate
approaches. At this stage he already was displaying a certain stubbornness that later led to
his huge military failures.
Another remaining question is whether or not the war at that point was inevitable. It is
impossible to answer this one, since we human beings are not capable of lifting the veil
that obscures the future. Anyone can answer that question according to his own
convictions and argue convincingly, but such intellectual sand table exercises have no
historical value.
The previous comments go straight to the weakness of German domestic politics. In
Great Britain, on the other hand, it is common that in time of war the opposition stands
loyally behind the government and supports it. Situations like ours were thus impossible
there.36
11
World War II
Prelude
Hitler’s tense voice on the radio was deeply excited as he announced to the German
people the start of the war and the fact that Italy had remained on the sidelines. Events
clearly had overtaken him. The reason for this could have been the fact that he had
approached Austria, Czechoslovakia, and now Poland always with the same tactics. This
time the enemy had been prepared. Hitler played with open cards against the enemy’s
hidden cards. A change in tactics toward Prague through a peaceful cooperation with the
Czechs would have been quite possible, because of the Czechs’ increased animosity
toward the western Allies, and subsequently a change toward Poland could have created
more favorable conditions.
Hitler never played the Russian trump card, his last political asset. In dealing with
Poland, Russia should have been the lead card. Germany could have remained quietly in
the background. The more active Russia was, the more favorable the situation would have
been for Germany.1
The Mood
There was no enthusiasm whatsoever for this war among the majority of the people. But
that was not necessarily a deterrent, because enthusiasm is rather a two-edged sword. So,
right from the beginning the government of the Reich had to deal with the mind-set of the
people and did not have the option of letting things run their course as they did in 1914.
On the surface the people were tightly unified, but under the surface the old internal
political conflicts still festered and were just replaced by the no less competitive tensions
between the party, the SS, the SA, the Wehrmacht, the Hitler Youth, the Labor Service,
and the Labor Front. When I was the commander in Tilsit, a high party official remarked
to me, “Your work must be a lot easier now that you no longer have the socialist
agitation.”
I answered, “If the political wisdom of the Kreisleiter culminates with the opinion that
the military officer is reactionary and he therefore must disappear, then any change from
the past is negligible.”
Even though a large part of the leaders of the party and its subordinate entities worked
loyally with the Wehrmacht, there were far too many who, driven by their own inferiority
complexes, believed they had to oppose the Wehrmacht. Subconsciously, some of the
officers recalled to active duty, mostly those in the different branches of military
administration, played directly into the hands of those elements of the party. Once many of
the recalled officers were safely back under the umbrella of the Wehrmacht, and without
regard to their oath, they loudly declared that they represented the true attitude of the
Wehrmacht and the officer corps. For the most part, their opinions were such that they
previously would have never dared to state openly. Their idle chatter was passed along
through the various party channels, often embellished, ultimately reaching Hitler’s desk.
Hitler, who was by nature mistrusting, was clearly influenced by what he heard, which
contributed to many bad decisions that in the end cost a great deal of blood.
During that time I often thought about my first commander from 1914, Major von
Rauch. Without assets, having to rely on his small major’s pension, he refused any offer to
return to active duty because of his convictions. He often wrote to me that he was very
concerned about the political and military developments. He did so without sounding
mutinous and he was always respectful of my position and the oath to which I was bound.
He often prefaced his concerns with the caveat, “. . . if you can comment in your position
on this… .” He was a true Prussian gentleman.
The Wehrmacht
The Wehrmacht was not at all ready for war. This fact was well known to Hitler and it
speaks against him as being the one who was singularly responsible for the war.2 The
Wehrmacht was still in a build-up phase. It had significant weaknesses; above all it lacked
a well-trained reserve force. Our totally modern weaponry and innovative organizational
structures were somewhat of an equalizer. The world’s first modern tank army had been
formed. Unfortunately, that tank army was completely lacking its backbone, an adequate
tank production base. That tank army without an adequate number of tank plants remained
an empty shell despite increases in manpower and the accomplishments of the leadership.
This was a decisive factor in losing the war.
In contrast, German generalship and the General Staff had reached a level of
operational excellence unparalleled in military history. The Seeckt School that was based
on Schlieffen’s concepts was bearing fruit. It had influenced the entire officer corps of the
old one hundred thousand-man Reichswehr far beyond the domain of the generals and the
General Staff. What we lacked was a thorough foundation in tactical training, and that
would take its toll during the course of the war.
Economically, the army could depend on the highly efficient German industry,
provided that it could resolve the decisive quest for raw materials. That required extending
the war beyond the borders of the Reich to catch up with global production capacities. An
alliance with Russia and Japan could have alleviated this problem significantly.
The Political Leadership
Politically, Hitler was in complete control. His accomplishments up to this point had
earned him a strong level of trust. People assumed that he could master the political
situation and would tightly focus all the forces of the nation toward one common goal. It
was also expected that the military and the political leadership would be unified. And it
was expected that the political leadership would energetically protect the front line from
any negative influences from the home front. That is what those who were willing to
sacrifice their lives thought they had a right to.
Thus, the Wehrmacht approached all of its new tasks with seriousness and sincerity,
convinced that it could accomplish them. The smart people who afterward claimed to have
known all along that it was impossible were smart enough to remain silent for the time
being. The majority of the officer corps deferred all misgivings about governmental
system. “First we have to win the war” was the prevailing thought.
War Breaks Out
I, unfortunately, was sitting at the ministry and could only follow the events in Poland
from a distance. After the conclusion of the Poland campaign I was sent to inspect the
lesser quality Panzer divisions, to accelerate their reconstitution. Hitler wanted to secure
his rear in the West as fast as possible. The troops generally did not understand the reason
for the rush. They were perfectly happy to rest on their laurels after the victory in Poland.
It was not always easy to get things moving in the face of resistance from some much
higher-ranking officers, but in the end I worked through those problems.
1st Rifle Regiment
My assignment as the commander of the 1st Rifle Regiment in Weimar came as quite a
relief for me. I would not have chosen any other regiment. In addition to the good
reputation the regiment and its officers had, I had just outfitted this unit with the most
modern equipment. Everything was armored and mobile. It was the most modern regiment
in the army. The regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant Andreas Braune-Krickau, met me at
the train station in Weimar. He was a strong, unique personality, with whom I worked
well.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the regiment had been formed from the former 11th
Cavalry Regiment. The 8th Company was the former 3rd Squadron of my old 18th
Cavalry Regiment. Officers and NCOs were mostly Silesians and the enlisted were from
Thuringia, with a certain percentage of Germans from the Sudeten region and from the
Rhineland. The 3rd Battalion came from a motorized infantry division and consisted of
soldiers from Hamburg and Lower Saxony. They all proved themselves beyond all
expectations, and even those from Thuringia were far better than their reputation. In
peacetime they were easy to mold and in war they were easy to lead, as long as they had
officers who were fully committed. I have experienced over and over again that the
positive and negative tribal characteristics of Germans complement each other well, as
long as the mix is right.
The Waiting Game
Hitler wanted to turn against the western Allies as soon as possible after the Poland
campaign. Operationally this was the correct course of action, but two important factors
mitigated against it. Technologically our tanks were not prepared for the harsh winter
conditions and the icy roads. A winter offensive could have easily destroyed the
equipment without any enemy action. And second, the Wehrmacht was still not ready
internally. That was clear from a visibly diminishing sense of discipline. As I noted in my
journal then: “The disciplinary conditions in the homeland are not very impressive,
especially on the trains. Everybody just loiters around. Salutes are rendered sloppily or not
at all. There are similarities to 1918, except then the people were acting maliciously; now
they are good natured but have grown lax about the unpleasant saluting ritual. Much
damage was done by the removal of regimental insignia for security purposes. That killed
esprit de corps and the soldiers became nothing but a gray, anonymous mass. The officer
as the only bearer of discipline does not stand out anymore, because all sorts of people are
now wearing officer uniforms for reasons of leveling down.3 Commandants and area
commanders are mostly old people who are not up to the task. Beware if a spark should
fall on such dry tinder.”
Hitler was fully aware of the first problem. An intense controversy raged between him
and von Brauchitsch over the second problem, which gravely strained the relations
between the two men. The conditions soon improved, however, with the introduction of
leave schedules, special leave trains, and other measures. A war always requires a
complete adjustment by an army. If you compared the Kaiser’s army of 1914 to the
Wehrmacht of 1939–1940, the latter looked rather good. The Poland campaign had not
handed us any serious setbacks and there was no failure of the leadership. There had been
no problems like the panic of the XVII Army Corps near Gumbinnen in 1914, the failure
of the troops and their leaders at Liège, or the total breakdown of leadership during the
Battle of the Marne.
We had become blind to reality and for the last twenty years we had been seeing
anything that had happened in the old Kaiser’s army through rose- colored glasses.
Historical writing should be truthful above all. When it is written with an agenda, it can
cause real havoc. The civilian population everywhere made an excellent impression.
Serious, dutiful, willingly suffering the constricting consequences of the campaign, they
were a great source of support for the troops, unlike in 1918 when they were a source of
unrest.
The campaign plan against France changed. The initial plan was a rerun of the
Schlieffen Plan, with the strongest wing on the right expected to overcome all resistance.
Since the French and the English were also thinking along the old patterns, a frontal battle
of both main forces would have taken place in the Dutch-Belgian region. In essence, that
was exactly what Schlieffen had been trying to avoid, and we had to avoid it under all
circumstances.
Major General (later Field Marshal) Erich von Manstein gets all the credit for
developing under difficult conditions a completely different scheme of maneuver. Similar
to Napoleon’s plan for the Battle of Austerlitz, it was a blow at the pivotal joint of the
enemy just as he was attempting to execute an encirclement. It was a complete departure
from Schlieffen’s scheme of maneuver, and I often thought of my father who even before
World War I said again and again: “Schlieffen’s doctrine is too one-sided and too
formulaic. The solution cannot be found in a one-sided effort at encirclement only; but
with today’s mass armies it must be a breakthrough and an encirclement.”
The change to the staging plan meant we had to reconnoiter the Dutch border area. We
also had good intelligence from across the border. The Dutch troops were not at all
impressive. A small part of the Dutch military was anti-German, the larger part was of the
opinion that it was better to march with Germany. At the beginning of February 1940 my
regiment was shifted to the middle Moselle and came under Guderian’s XIX Panzer
Corps. Things there were a lot more disciplined. The training was focused squarely on the
coming actions. Up to the time of the breakthrough at Sedan we rehearsed everything in
detail in both map exercises and field exercises on similar terrain, under combat
conditions, including live firing and air support. The Moselle River was the training standin for the Meuse.4 I was not satisfied until every man under my command was able to
handle the rubber dinghies just like a combat engineer. I let the exercises run completely
uninhibited to allow everybody to get used to independent thinking and acting.
It was the best preparation for an offensive that I had ever seen. As a result, we did not
run into any surprises during the battle up to the breakthrough at Sedan. The trump card,
however, was that when we stood ready to cross at the Meuse, instead of a long-winded
order we received the short directive; “Act in accordance with War Game ‘Koblenz.’
Execute at 1600 hours today.” And everything then went smoothly, quite a unique episode
in military history.
Otherwise, we followed with suspenseful interest politics and the progress of the
Norwegian campaign. For me personally there was a last-minute crisis. General von
Schell, my last peacetime boss, became a ministerial secretary and he wanted me to
succeed him in his military duties. Fortunately, this did not happen.
To the Meuse
The word came on 9 May. I was ordered to take command of the brigade and lead the
advance guard of the division, which consisted of the 1st Motorcycle Rifle Battalion and
the 3rd Battalion of my regiment. We crossed the border into Luxembourg on schedule.
The border gates did not slow us down much. Our infiltrated informants stood next to
most of them, having prevented them from being closed. I drove forward to one of the
motorcycle rifle companies that was advancing at a point ten kilometers ahead of the
advance guard main body and caught up with them at the Belgian border, just as they were
preparing to dig in. Along the border lay the enemy bunkers that we were so familiar with
from previous map exercises. They were silhouetted clearly in the terrain, but there was no
movement. The Belgians seemed indecisive, almost as if they did not know there was a
war going on. It was hard to believe. I immediately ordered the company to attack. The
armored scout cars fired into the gun ports of the bunkers and the assault detachments
moved forward. A Belgian tank or antitank gun tried to escape to the rear and the bunker
crews started running. A few of the Belgians were cut down in our machine gun fire and
we captured two machine guns, and five prisoners, including the Belgian platoon leader. It
was all over in half an hour and we had broken through the Belgian border position with
our surprise attack. Our losses were two killed and two wounded. The completely
surprised Belgians had waited too long to engage with their weapons. They had been
sitting in their positions for three months straight without relief, and had degenerated into
a rather ragtag mob. At that point the brigade commander returned from his home leave
and I returned to my regiment that was still in the divisional rear.
Map 1. The French Campaign, May–June 1940. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
Relentlessly we moved forward. French troops appeared and were cut up. On 12 May
my regiment marched through Bouillon and crossed the Semois and the French border.
Gottfried von Bouillon’s5 old castle looked down on us. We moved forward quickly in the
face of light enemy contact. Horses, equipment, the dead, the wounded, and shot-up
supply convoys lay everywhere. The French fought extremely poorly. Whenever we asked
prisoners why they were fighting against us, the common reply was, “Because England
wants us to; the rich want us to. We are not waging war; war is being waged with us.”
Their eyes would light up with hatred whenever England was mentioned.
We destroyed the enemy’s forward bunkers according to plan and without losses and
reached the exit of the Ardennes. The terrain was flat and without cover as it sloped down
toward the Meuse River. My 3rd Battalion headed toward the Meuse on a broad front. I
moved with the forward lines to ensure that the advance maintained momentum. When we
reached the Meuse at 2300 hours there was nobody to our left or right. A French
counterattack into one or both of my open flanks could have destroyed us, but everything
remained quiet. Toward morning my other two battalions had come on line, which
eliminated much of the danger of the situation.
On 13 May it was clear and sunny. The French artillery that day demonstrated its great
effectiveness. Every movement we made was under fire and all traffic in the rear areas
was affected. Although my regiment had already crossed the river under the artillery fire,
the effect on the morale was strong. The soldiers hunkered down in their holes. I requested
a Stuka6 attack on the French artillery positions. Under Guderian something like that
worked instantly. The effect was overwhelming. The French artillery was silenced and the
mood of our troops turned into one of jubilation.
The Breakthrough
The attack was supposed to continue that day. Although I was skeptical, I prepared the
regiment. The artillery had not caught up yet. Instead, there was a large-scale air attack
with one thousand aircraft. Suddenly we received the classic order: “X time 1600 hours.
Act in accordance with the established play book scenario.”
For another two hours we waited with tense anticipation. The orders were perfectly
clear, and there was nothing more to be done. At 1600 hours I was at the Meuse and we
had our first crisis. The rubber dinghies were in place, but the engineers were not. At this
moment the commander of the engineer battalion of the Grossdeutschland Regiment7
showed up. “You are heaven sent,” I told him. “Here are the dinghies, put us across.”
“We are not trained to do that,” he quibbled. “We are assault engineers.”
We already knew how to assault. We did not need engineers for that. Thank God I had
trained all my personnel in dinghy operations at the Moselle River. We ended up doing it
all ourselves, the river crossing and the assault.
The air and the ground shuddered from engine noises and the detonation of bombs. The
French artillery remained silent and the enemy bunkers were silent. We attacked, just like
on maneuvers. Prisoners flooded out of their bunkers, completely demoralized, and many
of them senselessly drunk. When we broke through the first line of bunkers, Guderian
showed up beaming. He had been the main proponent of such tactics, and had led the
difficult struggle for their acceptance. The results were now proving him right. But he had
laid all the extensive preparatory groundwork.
Once we were through the forward line of bunkers we still faced the enemy
emplacements on the hills behind. Reports that our own artillery was firing on us came in
from everywhere. That was not true, however. The French artillery had finally opened up.
I committed my reserve battalion in the forwardmost position, telling them, “Let’s go.
Next orders briefing at that bunker up there on the hill.”
Then I started moving forward. In such moments the leader has to expose himself. He
must show a disregard for danger. But my regiment at that point was not exactly the model
of a combat-ready unit. On the contrary, the attack was dragging. What was easy today
could cost a lot of blood tomorrow. The day was coming to an end and we still had to
reach the dominating terrain. I pushed and pushed, and by the time the sun was setting we
owned the commanding hills and had destroyed the last enemy bunkers. The regimental
staff had broken through with the lead battalion and we closed in on the key bunker, from
which I had said I would issue my follow-on order. As we approached the bunker from the
rear, the riflemen of the 2nd Battalion were storming forward. They were quite surprised
to find their regimental commander already in the French positions.
We had accomplished a huge success. My totally exhausted troops fell into a leaden
sleep. The enemy was gone and there was a huge gap in his lines. I thought back to Mount
Kemmel, where we had achieved a similar great success, but no senior leadership had
been at the point to follow through to a victory. It was my great good luck that I was
allowed to lead at a point where I had seen others in the First World War fail so critically. I
walked off a distance, thought about it, and made a decision. We had to advance another
ten kilometers into the enemy. My adjutant, Braune-Kriekau, a resolute and courageous
man with a keen military mind, said, “Sir, that would lead to the destruction of the
regiment.”
“No,” I replied. “It will lead to the destruction of the French.”
My battalion commanders insisted that it was impossible to move forward with the
totally exhausted units. I did not budge. We would move forward after one hour rest.
Battalion Richter was to remain and occupy the hills. The other two battalions staggered
and hobbled forward into the black night.
Counterattack
A night that was not really one set in over the battlefield. At daybreak on 14 May I moved
up to my forward elements in Chéhéry. There was no enemy anywhere. We had achieved
the breakthrough. Our vehicles were still on the other side of the Meuse; all the equipment
we had across had been hand carried. We had one antitank gun with us, which I had towed
forward with my command car. The division’s Panzer brigade was also still on the other
side of the Meuse, and the troops were completely spent. Additional elements moved
forward piecemeal, especially my somewhat rested 3rd Battalion, followed by individual
antitank guns and ammunition. We still had to take the crossing sites on the Ardennes
Canal, which were important for our turn toward the west. Elements of all kinds of units
were thrown forward on any available vehicles moving toward Omicourt and Malmy.
Even my command car was used for that. My personal adjutant, First Lieutenant von
Kurzetkowski, moved forward in the forest near Vendresse, where he shot up an enemy
battery. But then he was forced by enemy tanks to withdraw on foot.
Guderian and my division commander, Lieutenant General Friedrich Kirchner, with his
brilliant Ia Major Wenck, arrived beaming. “Just hold out for another one to two hours and
the Panzer brigade will be here.”
Guderian’s gumption was a guarantee for us to hold out in this crisis. Then a report
came in from my units at Malmy-Chéhéry: “Strong French tank elements moving toward
Chéhéry… our antitank guns cannot penetrate the French armor… we have to withdraw.”
I responded, “The order is to stay in place. The regimental staff will stay also.”
I sent forward an engineer company that had just arrived, not sure that would help. It
could only be minutes before the French tanks overran us. We needed our Panzers. Then a
motorcycle messenger arrived, reporting that the Panzer brigade had crossed the Meuse
and would close with us within half an hour. An officer of an antitank company from the
Grossdeutschland Regiment also arrived and reported that his unit would arrive shortly
with 50 mm heavy antitank guns. Just as the French tanks were closing in on us slowly, we
heard engine noises behind us. We thought those were the antitank guns… . but then two
field kitchens pulled up right next to us. The devil himself must have sent them to taunt us.
But then the antitank guns finally arrived. The first gun went into position but was
knocked out by the French tanks. The second gun went into battery and opened fire,
setting one tank ablaze, then a second and a third. The French attack faltered, and the
courageous antitank crews from the Grossdeutschland kept firing. At that point the Panzer
brigade arrived and went straight into the attack. Dozens of French tanks were destroyed
in short order, and the final count was fifty. We had overcome the crisis and not a single
man of my regiment had left his position during the hellish episode. Consequently, our
losses were minimal. Meanwhile, the staffs of the Panzer brigade, the 2nd Panzer
Regiment, and the 43rd Engineer Assault Battalion were meeting at a road intersection in
Chéhéry. I was hurrying to that location myself, but just before I got there a misplaced
strike by our Stukas hit the group.
Coincidentally, the hill where we assaulted the bunker on the evening of 13 May was
where the Prussian General Headquarters had its command post on 1 September 1870. It
was there that French general André Reille delivered Napoleon III’s surrender note to
King Wilhelm of Prussia.
The Enemy Side
The French tried to stem the tide of defeat. Despite the horrible communications situation
and the clogging up of all the roads caused by the masses of refugees, the commander of
the French 55th Infantry Division, General Legrand, still managed to assemble forces for a
counterattack. He committed two tank battalions and his 213th Infantry Regiment against
my rifle regiment. But the chaos and the congested roads and villages delayed the
counterattack for hours. He threw another infantry regiment forward, but that too
dissolved completely in the general chaos and became completely combat ineffective.
When a well-planned counterattack was finally launched and reached the forward German
lines, our Panzers and antitank guns halted it cold. My regiment’s exhausting night
advance had paid off. Nonetheless, I still had to give General Legrand great credit for even
attempting to launch a counterattack.
My regiment lay in deep sleep, strung out along the road, waiting for the vehicles
which were still stuck far in the rear. During every peacetime maneuver I had driven home
the point to the regiment that any machine gun that was not committed against ground
targets or was not being transported would always be kept ready to engage in air defense.
Thus, more than two hundred of my regiment’s machine guns, augmented by a light antiaircraft unit with 20 mm automatic cannon, were ready when we were attacked by a large
number of French aircraft. With their machine guns blazing, the low-flying French planes
raked over our positions. But when they were hit by our return fire, they hit the ground,
broke up, and exploded. In just a few minutes that crisis was over and hardly any of the
courageous French pilots could have survived.
Now we were finally left alone. I lay down in a garden and slept as if I were dead.
When Braune woke me up he reported: “Everything has been prepared as ordered. We’re
ready to move out.”
With a surprised look on my face I asked Braune what was going on and who gave the
order?
“But, Sir, you gave that order just two hours ago.”
I apparently had given the order in my sleep without realizing it. It had, however, been
a pretty reasonable one.
The Final Resistance
The thrust of the 1st Panzer Division tore the French lines wide open. Our adjacent units
had been lagging, but were now moving swiftly. On the French side any available reserves
were brought up and thrown against the threat. In this situation Guderian executed one of
his tactical concepts by turning the mass of his corps 90 degrees toward Amiens and the
Channel coast before the majority of the trailing infantry division was fully forward and
ready for action.
On the evening of 14 May my regiment moved toward the west into the emerging
night. We took prisoner upon prisoner, all of them well aware of the propaganda line
implanted by Goebbels, “We do not wage war; war is being waged on us.”
On 15 May the advance guard, Battalion Richter, met the enemy, attacked aggressively,
and got stuck in a confusing and uncomfortable situation along the edge of the village
Ménil-la-Horgne. We were taking casualties rapidly, and we had to change the situation. In
the meantime, my Battalion Studnitz on its own accord started to envelop the enemy to the
right, through thick underbrush. In the dense forest my regimental staff encountered the
staff of the Moroccan 2nd Spahi Regiment,8 killing their regimental commander, Colonel
Geoffrey. The captured Spahis pleaded for mercy, but their French officers remained calm
and proud in captivity. Studnitz fought his way out of the forest, remounted his battalion,
and then crashed through the retreating Spahis and a battalion from Normandy. Richter,
meanwhile, took Ménil-la-Horgne through an encirclement, killing in the process Colonel
Burnol, the commander of the Algerian 2nd Spahi Regiment. I have fought against all
enemies in both wars and always in the hottest places. Rarely did anyone fight as well as
the 3rd Spahi Brigade. Their commander, Colonel Maré, was wounded when we captured
him. Including the two regimental commanders, twelve of the brigade’s twenty-seven
officers were killed, seven officers were wounded, and 610 Spahis were killed or
wounded. The 3rd Spahi Brigade had ceased to exist, sacrificing themselves for France. I
issued special orders to treat the few surviving prisoners well.
We were near Bouvellemont, on a wide-open flatland facing toward the village. We
were taking machine gun and antitank fire from its edge. Battalion Studnitz was
positioned in a long line at the edge of the flats. The troops were completely exhausted.
The rations were gone and there was nothing to drink in the extreme heat. Ammunition
was low. While the losses of the preceding days had been minimal, they were now starting
to add up. Every success we achieved had been paid for with the lives of some of our best
troops, mostly officers.
I called the officers together and they told me that after a good night’s sleep we would
press on the next day. I cut them off. “Gentlemen, we will attack, or we will lose the
victory.”
It was a situation where no matter what you ordered, the soldiers were not going to
move. So I turned around and said, “If you’re not going, then I’ll just take the village
myself,” and I started in the direction of Bouvellemont across the open field, fifty meters,
one hundred meters. Then it all broke loose. Troops and officers, who just a few seconds
ago could not move anymore, started to pass me. Nobody rushed from cover to cover, they
all just stormed ahead. Their bayonets reflecting in the setting sun. There was no stopping
them. With loud shouts echoing in the air, the thin, totally exhausted line of riflemen
entered the village. Bouvellemont was ours. I had not miscalculated. No German soldier
will abandon an officer who moves forward.
A battalion of the 15th Armored Rifle Regiment had been holding Bouvellemont. We
destroyed that unit during hard street fighting at night, capturing eight tanks in the process.
We had received reports that the 152nd Infantry Regiment of General Jean de Lattre de
Tassigny’s capable 14th Infantry Division had been sent forward toward Bouvellemont,
but we were not able to determine if that unit ever entered the fight.
Pursuit
The last organized resistance of the French had broken down. Guderian paid us a visit on
the morning of 16 May. He walked from company to company, talked to the troops quite
informally, and read captured orders to them that gave them the idea of the sad condition
the French were in. He had a personal, human, but soldierly touch that was devoid of
exaggerated emotion, but still worked miracles whenever he spoke to the troops. Shortly
thereafter, we moved out. The objective was the Oise River crossings near Ribemont.
We advanced through the withdrawing French troops. Some units were still in their
garrisons. None of them seemed to be thinking about fighting. Occasionally enemy tanks
tried to attack our columns and were quickly destroyed. Nobody bothered with the
prisoners; somebody else would collect them up. An enemy motorized column tried to
fight back, and in the process killed their own people who had already given themselves
up. We took a bridge across the Canal du Nord just at the moment when English
demolition crews arrived. They were the first “Tommies” we captured. We also captured a
French major trying to escape dressed up like a female. His uniform trousers under the
dress gave him away. “You know that I could have you executed right now without a
trial,” I told him.
He knew that, and he was clearly relieved when I told him that I would have done the
same thing in his situation. I shook his hand as he took off the dress.
We had just taken the Oise River crossings on 18 May when an adjutant appeared with
orders for me. I was to take command of the 1st Panzer Brigade immediately. On the
afternoon of the 19th I arrived at Caulaincourt, the castle of General Auguste de
Caulaincourt, who had been Napoleon’s Master of Horse. The castle had been rebuilt after
the first war, and during the renovation the very valuable memoirs of the general were
found. My predecessor as brigade commander had suffered a total breakdown, caused by
the horrific physical exhaustion and the constant tense situations. He had balked,
complaining that it was impossible to cross the Somme and seize Peronne. We did just that
the following day, and without a significant fight.
One of my subordinate units was the 1st Motorcycle Rifle Battalion, in which my son,
Friedrich-Wilhelm, was a Fahnenjunker. It is always an awkward situation to have your
own son under your command. For the father it is an additional heavy burden, and for the
son it can easily be that he sees things in a slightly distorted light. I had therefore made
sure that Friedrich-Wilhelm had been assigned to this unit, where I would not be in his
direct chain of command. I had no way of knowing that I would end up commanding the
rifle regiment in the same brigade; but now there was nothing that could be done about it.
Friedrich-Wilhelm had developed brilliantly. He was the first German soldier to reach the
enemy side of the Meuse. I saw him again for the first time during the war in the same
place where in 1914 I had met my father for the first time during that war.
To the Channel Coast
Hitler’s order to hold in place despite Guderian’s sharp objection got us a little rest. On 20
May we marched on toward Amiens, the objective of our March 1918 offensive that we
never reached. The sight of the cathedral ahead of us in the morning sun triggered some
odd emotions.
Several sources have mentioned a run-in that I supposedly had with a senior officer at
that point. I had occupied a bridgehead across the Somme River without a fight and was
ordered to move from there toward Amiens. Another unit was ordered to relieve us in
place. Their commander insisted on a formal battle hand-off procedure, as it had been the
custom in the trench wars. There was no enemy anywhere in sight and I could not
convince him to drop it. I simply ended the conversation brusquely, telling him, “I am
moving toward Amiens. If the bridgehead is lost, then just retake it. That’s what I would
do. My field kitchens will still be here for a while to help you.” There was no chance of
enemy contact, and there were no significant enemy formations between there and Paris.
Amiens fell after a short fight and we developed a bridgehead on the south bank of the
Somme River. The fighting was piecemeal, but in the process we destroyed a
courageously attacking English battalion. At that point the enemy was among the least of
our concerns. The number of POWs was growing. We constantly had some VIP or another
coming through, even enemy VIPs: the aide of the English military attaché in Brussels, the
area commander of Amiens who wanted to look after his house one more time, a Dutch
officer who was supposed to withdraw money in Paris, aviation officers and a delegation
from the French ministry of air that were supposed to get an aircraft factory operational
after it had been abandoned by its workers because of our air attacks.
Amiens was a special liability. The staff of a battalion was appointed as the military
government. For the most part only old people had stayed behind. The water pipes were
all broken. The streets were full of dead bodies. The hospitals were full of wounded, but
no doctors. The prisons were full of hoodlums and the guards had disappeared. And then a
constant stream of refugees started moving into the city from all directions. “We were all
directed by radio to come to Amiens” was the standard answer. And then these people,
Belgians as well as Frenchmen, started to loot. Had the devil ordered all these people to
Amiens? I had to sigh deeply. It was not the devil, but for several days Goebbels’s
propaganda organization had been using the radio to direct the French refugee columns
across the few Somme crossings in order to create a traffic chaos to make Allied
operations impossible.
On 22 May we were relieved in place and turned north in the direction of Calais and
Dunkirk. There was hardly any resistance as we made a leisurely drive through the French
rear area. At Desvres we did encounter determined resistance from a French engineer
battalion. We broke through it, but unfortunately my best battalion commander, Major von
Jagow, was killed in the process. His successor was Captain Eckinger, an Austrian, a
tough, ingenious soldier. He was the first of a long line of well-trained Austrian officers
that came under my command during this war.
My battle group was ordered to take the bridge across the canal at Bourbourg, Saint
Folquin. After careful preparation by six artillery batteries and support by tanks,
Eckinger’s battalion forced its way across and established a bridgehead. They captured six
guns and completely destroyed the enemy. Observing the attack from the roof of a house, I
had the distinct impression that nothing was going right. Finally, I got down from the roof,
sat down in my easy chair, and read Le Figaro. Sometimes you have to force yourself to
trust reliable people who are leading at the front. In the end, everything worked out down
to the second.
Then we were ordered to halt our advance and we could see bomber formations flying
overhead to and from Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe was supposed to finish the enemy off, but
the Royal Air Force [RAF] had other ideas. English fighter aircraft attacked us without
interruption, as my command post building shook constantly. My son paid me a visit at
that time. Over coffee and a jam sandwich he told me, “We have it much better up at the
front. You guys are getting bombed too much.”
The Battle of Dunkirk was over. The English had gotten away. At the time Dunkirk was
not considered a turning point in the war. Of course, we should have advanced toward
Dunkirk on the ground. Nobody could have stopped us. The rationale given for holding us
up was to give the troops some rest for the follow-on missions, combined with the belief
that the experiences of the Spanish Civil War and Sedan had proved that the Luftwaffe
could finish the job on its own. The great lesson of Dunkirk was that a victory on the
ground can only be won by ground troops, as valuable and indispensable as the air force
might be. Also confirmed were Clausewitz’s theses, “I do not want to hear about field
commanders who think they can win without shedding blood,” and “Humans are more
valuable than materiel. Materiel can be replaced, human beings cannot.” Acting in
accordance with these principles, England lost Dunkirk but won the African campaign.
For the next few days we had some quiet time. Everyone relaxed. For my own victory
reward I wanted to see Rodin’s famous Burghers of Calais sculpture. When I visited the
town I saw scenes of incredible destruction that reminded me of the extent to which
victory can be misjudged. The formerly enemy coastal guns were already being manned
by German sailors. Naturally, I also visited all the units of my regiment and thanked the
troops. I was proud to be the commander of such a regiment.
Several interesting things were going on. My 1st Battalion had ordered a Dutch
company that had moved into their area accidentally to guard the POWs. The Dutch troops
did a first-rate job and would not have minded fighting with us against the English. And
what about the English? The French, the Flemish, the Walloons, the Dutch, nobody
wanted anything to do with them. Near Gravelingen they allegedly had shot Flemish
refugees and supposedly killed forty women, old people, and children just because they
were annoyed by the Flemish dialect. If the hatred against England had been channeled
properly, it could have stabilized Germany’s western border forever. The French did not
want to continue the war. Daladier and Herriot had the respect of the people, Reynaud did
not.9 Nobody wanted to fight for England and everyone thought the war was useless,
displaying a total lack of political will.
The English were courageous soldiers and equals to us. Unfortunately, they treated
prisoners brutally. A German air defense sergeant managed to escape after he was captured
by them. They had tied him and his fellow soldiers up and laid them in a road ditch. The
English that we captured, on the other hand, were impressive. Columns of their prisoners
marched in formation whistling and singing. When our troops offered them cigarettes they
declined. They were a proud people. It was too bad that Germany and England could not
have come to an agreement.10
The Second Act
After the destruction of the French and English northern flank, which mostly included the
enemy’s best attack divisions, our follow-on mission was the destruction of the remaining
French army. At that point an immediate invasion of England was completely out of the
question, considering the unbroken power of the RAF and the nonexistence of any means
of amphibious transport. And, of course, it was necessary to destroy the remaining French
army to eliminate any potential bridgehead on the Continent. While strong Panzer forces
were committed to break through on both sides of Amiens, we were assigned to a followon phase of the breakthrough at the Aisne River.
Toward the Aisne
Our movement led us through the destroyed and rebuilt battlefields of World War I. What
the French had accomplished there was disturbing. On the surface everything appeared in
order, but if there had been a prize for minimum taste and creativity the French would
have won it. Using the old foundations everybody had rebuilt in any tacky manner he
wanted to, without regard for taste. All the old angles and traffic traps remained. There
were three basic models of war memorial which could be found cast in concrete,
alternating in every village.
The movement toward the Aisne River was dull and dreary. The whole day long we sat
in a convoy and ate dust. Nonetheless, there was some diversion. During a longer break I
sat down in the grass a little off the road and was happy that I did not have to look at
anything military for a while. As I was looking up, I stared into the barrel of a rifle. On my
threatening shout the soldier, who was a member of my regiment, came to the position of
attention. “Sorry, Sir,” he said, “I just wanted to shoot that ox for the field kitchen.” I had
not noticed the ox that he was aiming at and which stood directly behind me. Later during
the war the 1st Panzer Division was under my command frequently. Every time it was one
of my units I sent the brave cook a bottle of liquor with a note: “With many thanks for not
making me part of your meal plan.” The last time I was able to do that was in 1945 in
Hungary.
Breakthrough at the Aisne
The initial German attack was launched on both sides of the Aisne, with the intent of
pulling General Maxime Weygand’s11 reserves in front of us toward the Somme. My battle
group was to follow a few days later. During the actual breakthrough the Panzer divisions
were this time in the second echelon. The task of making the breach was assigned to the
infantry divisions. I was leading the left flank battle group of the division. West of Rethel
the establishment of a bridgehead was successful, while east of Rethel the attack failed.
During the night of 10 June we were ordered across the Aisne. The French had been
fighting tolerably well. According to statements from POWs, they had been told that
anyone retreating would be shot, and anyone attempting to surrender would be shot by his
comrades.
On 25 May General Weygand had issued the following order: “The battle that will
determine the fate of France will be fought without any thought of retreat from the
positions which we are holding. From the highest army commander down to the platoon
leader everyone must be driven by the fierce determination to fight to the death wherever
he stands. As long as the leader leads by example, the troops will follow. If necessary [the
leaders] have the right to enforce the obedience of the troops… .”
When later in the war Hitler in a worse situation issued a similar order, it was naturally
considered a crime.
As a tactical innovation, Weygand added the fortification and defense-in-depth of every
village. He exploited a national characteristic of the French, who have always understood
with shrewd finesse how to turn townships into defensive positions and hold them
heroically. We encountered this for the first time near Juniville. We had to take the town
because it had a road junction that was necessary to control for our supply lines. Sooner or
later you run into a position that cannot be bypassed. I ordered the motorcycle rifle
battalion to attack with the expectation that everything would go smoothly. It did not. The
battalion was unable to break through the strong resistance, even with artillery support. I
then ordered the 2nd Battalion to make an enveloping attack around from the right and
take Juniville from the rear. But as soon as everything was set to go, the French launched
continuous tank attacks on our left flank and rear. Fortunately, the French attacks were
only half measures and we were able to defeat them with direct field artillery fire.
Our 35 mm antitank guns were not much use in the fight because they generally could
not penetrate the strong armor plating of the French tanks. My command post was in a
small rectangular clump of trees. One tank circled us and chased us around the woods. My
antitank guns fired thirty-six rounds and only missed twice. But the hits did not penetrate.
Finally, when we managed to knock off one of the tracks we were able to fire into the less
thickly armored areas. Even then only four or five rounds actually penetrated the tank. The
crew finally bolted; every one of them was wounded.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Juniville was fierce. The town was expertly fortified.
Machine guns positioned in shot-out windows and zeroed-in on a specific point were fired
by pulley systems from remote covered positions, without anybody ever having to expose
himself. Others were aimed to fire at stone walls in street curves, so that the bullets
ricocheted along our approach route. Whenever we breached a barricade, it immediately
came under mortar fire. Most of the enemy sat in basements, kept quiet, exposed
themselves at intervals, and fired from the low levels into our troops. Most of our
wounded were hit in the legs. Finally, we resorted to the age-old measure of setting the
houses on fire. A newly arrived assault gun battalion also gave us support. By evening we
had taken the town. We captured two hundred prisoners and the colors of the French 127th
Infantry Regiment. The French had fought bravely. The heart of the resistance had been a
captain, but I never did learn his name. In several sources I have been credited incorrectly
with the “capture” of the colors of the French 127th Infantry Regiment. The French
soldiers had been trying to burn the flag in a cellar after the color guard had abandoned it.
When riflemen of my 2nd Battalion took the basement they pulled it from the flames.
There was no fight for the flag.
Although we conquered Juniville, the division’s main effort to our right had not been
able to penetrate. The next morning I attacked with the entire regiment in a southerly
direction. In front of us lay a wide-open plain without any cover. Both of the lead
battalions were completely exposed, but we laid on strong artillery fire against the French
positions. As the regiment moved in a wide sweep we started to take antitank fire. My
troops simply dismounted and continued the swift attack on foot. Guderian was with me at
my command post, observing the maneuver-like scene. Then the division’s Panzer brigade
advanced from the rear and gave the attack the final impetus. I immediately committed my
mounted reserve battalion right behind the Panzers, and we broke through.
The Bridge at Étrepy
We pressed on through fleeing French convoys. There was no more stopping. At one point
a French Negro soldier jumped out of a house and stormed toward us swinging a bush
knife. One of my troops grabbed his weapon and split his skull with it. We continued our
advance toward the south. Whenever we encountered any resistance one battery would
stop and engage, while everything else kept moving forward. On occasion individual tanks
put up resistance. One time I had stopped and had stepped away from my command
vehicle when my entire staff was killed by a prematurely exploding round from one of our
own Panzers.
On 13 June, as we approached the Rhine-Marne Canal, we captured the commander of
a French tank regiment, caught by surprise just as he was stepping out of his quarters. I
committed my battle group on a wide front along the Rhine-Marne Canal, intending to
capture any bridge intact. Then I received the following message at my command post at
Jussecourt-Minecourt (which I recorded in my personal journal that day): “Report from
2nd Battalion, 2nd Panzer Regiment at Étrepy. Bridge is intact but prepared for
demolition. Request instructions.”
I got extremely mad, jumped into my Kübel,12 and drove straight there. Nobody had
thought of the simplest of all actions in such a case, which was to get onto the bridge and
cut the detonation cords. Instead, the tanks were clustered around the bridge. If it had
exploded it would have been a mess. Cussing up a storm, I immediately put some troops
from the 8th Company across the bridge and gave Lieutenant Weber, the platoon leader of
the engineer platoon of our 2nd Battalion, the order to go onto the bridge and cut the
cords. He took off with his head low. I followed him. I felt better when the wires on the
first bridge had been cut. Weber then ran off to a second bridge, but shots rang out just as
he was trying to cut the wires. Suddenly there was an explosion, then another. I thought at
first that we were taking incoming artillery. The infantry fire increased. Even though the
spot was only one hundred meters away from us, I could not see the situation clearly. I
could not tell if the bridge had been blown. A short while earlier the Panzers had shot at an
electric locomotive that had been passing by on the train tracks running on the far side of
the river. A man in blue mechanic’s overalls had jumped off the train. Had he been
involved in the detonation?
Then all at once there was yelling and screaming as from all sides Arabs and Moors
streamed out of concealed dugouts whining and pleading for mercy. “Tunis, Tunis” and
“Duce, Duce!” they kept yelling. They were hunkering down everywhere, incapable of
moving. Slowly they started coming forward until we had some two hundred of these
“heroes” collected up. As soon as they realized that nothing was going to happen to them,
they squatted together in a circle happily chatting away, throwing away their headgear and
wrapping turbans out of towels.
The situation at the bridge also started to clear up. Thanks to Weber’s lightning speed
only part of the bridge had gone up and it was only slightly damaged. We then received
the order not to cross at Étrepy under any circumstances, but I already had a bridgehead on
the other side. I gave orders to repair the bridge and returned to my command post at
Minecourt. I had just returned when Guderian arrived, highly relieved about the bridge. It
was the only one we had captured intact. All others had been blown. Immediately we were
sent across toward St. Dizier.
Wild Pursuit
We ran into chaos. A battalion of Tunisians on trucks ran into us and immediately
surrendered without even an attempt to resist. The 2nd Battalion took an operational
airfield. As night approached, I halted the attack on St. Dizier in order to avoid night street
fighting. The overall outcome was already clear by that point. In the morning the enemy
was gone. We had just made ourselves comfortable and were happy to learn about the fall
of Paris when Guderian showed up, ordering: “Advance to the Swiss border. If possible,
move as far as Langres today.”
By 1300 hours we were back on the road. My regiment became the advance guard for
the division. Again and again we engaged in skirmishes with displaced soldiers and the
French 422nd Engineer Regiment, which was still putting up a good fight. As we took the
village of Joinville there was intense artillery fire coming from our rear. A French freight
train loaded with artillery ammunition had been approaching on the track along the road.
Some of our units fired on the train to stop it, which worked, but it came to a halt
diagonally across the road we were advancing on, the front of the train in a tunnel and the
end on a bridge. The train was burning slowly and the shells started to cook off. We were
completely cut off from the rest of the division. My adjutant, the unflappable
Kurzetkowski, managed to cross under the train and got back to the division with the
information. The division then had to take a time-consuming bypass through the
mountains. The French engineer regiment, meanwhile, collapsed under our attack. At first
there seemed to be many dead bodies laying around, but as our troops searched them
many of them came to life, relieved at being able to surrender alive. There were casualties
as well among the French refugees, whose misery was anonymous. But it was also good to
see how my soldiers, who had just relentlessly overrun the enemy, were now only
moments later handing out bread and chocolate to the refugees.
We were in the vicinity of Chaumont as darkness set in. We were taking fire from the
town, but there was no real enthusiasm for attacking into a city at night, especially when
everybody knew that the outcome of this campaign had been determined already. I took
aside the commander of the most forward battalion, Captain Eckinger, and told him:
“Tomorrow morning at 0800 hours the French cabinet is meeting. It has to open with the
news that the Germans are in Langres. Politicians are hysterical and react to news like
that.”
Eckinger understood. We formed a small wedge consisting of a forward point tank,
followed by Eckinger in his tank, then by the regimental staff. It was a nerve-racking trip.
Occasionally we fired a burst with a machine gun or threw a hand grenade. Finally we
were through and on the way toward Langres. We overran a roadblock and destroyed a
French company that was trying to assemble. As we got close to Langres, I wanted to
avoid street fighting. I sent two officers forward into the fortress as a truce parley,
demanding the surrender by 1000 hours. In the meantime, I brought six artillery batteries
into position and prepared the regiment to launch a pincer attack.
The business with the truce parley did not go quite smoothly. Some elements of the
French forces were no longer under the control of their officers. Some of them were
drunk, others wanted to resist fanatically. My two officers encountered a difficult situation,
but they finally were able to get through to the commandant and negotiate with him.
Fortunately, my 2nd Battalion noticed that something was not quite right and entered the
city on their commander’s initiative, which brought everything to a successful conclusion.
Langres is situated beautifully on a steep hilltop. I slept for two hours in remarkable
peace in the wonderful garden of the officers’ mess.
At midday we were on the march again, with our next objective being Besançon.
Endless French convoys, artillery, supply trains, and motor and horse columns were
marching from the north toward our left flank. Thousands of French came forward to
surrender. Nonetheless we relentlessly continued the advance. As we overran French
airfields, the returning French aircraft circled overhead like so many pigeons around their
burning coop. We shot down some of those planes. That evening the Saône River finally
put an end to the wild pursuit. The bridges across the Saône had been blown at the last
minute.
The Saône River was a wide sector. With a lot of effort and good preparation my 3rd
Battalion managed to get across the river and took Gray. The old but very courageous
French General de Cutzon and his adjutant were killed in the process. Finally, the 1st
Motorcycle Rifle Battalion reconnoitering on a wide front was able to find and secure an
intact bridge and get across. The next morning the building where we were staying was
rocked by incoming bombs, unfortunately our own. The aircraft were under the
operational control of Army Group Leeb. We had no way to stop the attack, so we had to
cross the Saône under the constant bombing of our own planes. Even though our losses
were minimal, it was very disconcerting.
Finally, we managed to get across and were moving again toward Besançon, Julius
Caesar’s Vesontio, his main base in the conquest of Gaul, and once the old German
imperial city of Bisanz. Smarter because of our experience at Langres, I decided to forgo
the use of truce delegates and ordered the advance under artillery cover, with tanks and
follow-on infantry converging from all sides on Besançon. My personal adjutant
Kurzetkowski, who had gone forward to reconnoiter the bridge situation, came back on his
motorcycle bleeding profusely. He had been ambushed by civilians and kicked to the
ground, but he managed to pull his pistol and shoot his way out. I did not, however, take
retaliatory actions against the civilians, nor had I at Langres.
We halted when we reached the far side of the town. The enemy had disappeared. I sat
on the balcony of a small house, surrounded by flowering roses and fresh strawberries. It
was an unreal environment after what we had been through. Night and day without a break
we had fought and advanced, advanced and fought. Our rations often had consisted of
some chocolate, and once in a great while a can of sardines. My regiment had more than
done its duty. Fortunately, our losses had been much smaller than during our rapid
advance from Sedan to the Channel. Rumors that France had capitulated were floating
around. The final battle with the encircled French army’s eastern group was still ahead of
us, but there was no longer any salvation for France. Our host, a nice Frenchman, assured
us again and again that nobody had wanted this senseless war. But at that hour Mars was
still ruling.
Belfort
We were advancing again. At 1600 hours we started moving in the direction of Belfort.
We were still at war, although France’s soldiers did not want to fight anymore. The road
led closely along the Doubs River. As soon as our forward elements arrived at a bridge it
was blown. But since we never needed to cross the Doubs, the destruction was
superfluous. At nightfall we were close to Montbéliard, the old Kingdom of
Württemberg’s Mömpelgard. The town was full of Frenchmen. If a fight erupted there, we
would never make it to Belfort, which was where I wanted to go. I gave the order not to
dismount and to just drive through the town without firing a shot. The clearing of the town
was supposed to be done by the follow-on forces. Audacity usually triumphs. Masses of
Frenchmen just stood around in the streets, even with horse-drawn artillery. Nobody
bothered us. Some of them did not recognize who we were, and the rest just did not want
to fight anymore. A civilian jumped on the running board of my car and yelled full of fear,
“Attention, les Allemands!” (“Watch out for the Germans!)” I shouted back, “Mais nous
sommes les Allemands.” (“But we are the Germans.”)
“Non, non, vous êtes pas des Allemands, vous êtes des Américains.” (“No, no, you are
not Germans, you are Americans.”) He repeated his warning over and over again. When I
finally yelled back at him in German, only then he realized his mistake and like lightning
he jumped off and disappeared. Finally, we were through the town. One infantry and one
Panzer battalion, two artillery battalions, and several smaller units followed. Overall it had
required very little to take Belfort by a coup de main. My plan was to prepare to attack the
heart of the fortress from inside the fortress ring, and then take each fort from within. It
was the middle of the night and no shots were being fired. I did not know if Belfort still
had artillery that we would encounter in the morning. It was a high-risk situation, and the
sole responsibility rested on me.
The morning of 18 June started out dimly. I issued the orders, but then the divisional
staff arrived. Somehow they had gotten through Mömpelgard. Major Wenck, the tried and
tested Ia of the division, had also decided on his own accord to plan for a surprise attack
on Belfort. He had set everything in motion and was now in position. The only
information I had about my 2nd Battalion, which had the mission of clearing Montbéliard,
was that it was involved in heavy fighting. To our front we encountered and quickly
overcame a road block near a railroad crossing. Then we started taking fire from Fort Les
Basses Perches. But after a few rounds from a heavy infantry weapon the fort fell quiet.
Then everything went very fast, and Belfort seemed to be ours. We quickly collected at
least ten thousand prisoners.
I invited the division commander to visit the famous Lion of Belfort statue13 with me
and pose for pictures. But just as we were turning into the inner city all hell broke loose.
Shots were fired from all the buildings, and shots were fired from the citadel and several
forts into the city. Then resistance flared up from the large French military post near the
train station. I ordered the Panzers to drive through the streets and fire. One of our planes
was circling the city. From all the fire that he was receiving we were able to assess how
much we still had to deal with. My 2nd Battalion arrived after having cleared Montbéliard,
capturing three thousand prisoners. Now we had the basis for a firm plan. One battery, the
engineer battalion, and several Panzers were ordered to attack the military post near the
train station. The heavy howitzer battalion set up inside the city. According to a carefully
laid-out fire plan, my 2nd Battalion was to take one fort after another and finally the
citadel.
The attack started at 1400 hours. I established my command post at Fort Les Basses
Perches, at the place where my Uncle Schmidt had earned his Iron Cross in 1870. A
beaming Guderian stood in my command post. Fort after fort fell after only short heavy
howitzer shelling. Finally, the citadel fell. The whole thing came off without friendly
casualties. The commander of the 2nd Battalion, Captain Eckinger, knew his business. The
French barracks inside the city also capitulated, and finally all the people in the inner city.
A second French regiment surrendered to my 3rd Battalion. Eventually, we assembled
more than thirty thousand prisoners in a big meadow.
The effect of our heavy howitzers on the old forts had been devastating. The forts were
the worst kind of death traps. At Fort de la Motte a shell penetrated a vault and killed a
platoon of French infantry just by the overpressure from the explosion. An Alsatian
soldier in one of the forts told us that they had planned to give themselves up but were
prevented from doing so by their officers. Just as we attacked, they lowered the fort’s
drawbridge while the commander was on the telephone. At another place a captured
French officer was sent back into the fortress with a capitulation message, and he was
killed immediately as a traitor by his own people.
Finale
On 19 June we continued on into the Vosges Mountains. We did not encounter any
significant resistance until we reached the crest overlooking the Moselle River valley. We
did have quite a bit of a problem with single guns firing at us from open positions. Heavy
howitzer fire and the fire from several Panzers that were moving forward along the road
opened the way for us. Finally, the regiment deployed on a wide front took the position
and old Fort Chateau Lambert. The enemy Chasseurs from the Pyrenees Mountains put up
a good fight to the end. Their commander, an old colonel, cried like a baby over the
weakness of France. I shared my breakfast sandwich with him and then had him escorted
to the rear. Below us in the Moselle River valley the bridges near Le Thillot had been
blown. During our morning stand-to on 20 June, French artillery fired on the pass again,
but died down quickly. Almost all of them gave up without resistance. The French people
were numb and exhausted; they could not go on anymore. They cursed England and their
own government.
It finally ended for us at Travetin. A very elegant French major, with a flashy rear area
appearance, came out of his headquarters and tried to chum up to us in a clumsy way. He
was the only Frenchman I encountered during the campaign who found this to be
necessary. But now it was finally over and we halted. I fell into a deep sleep in the bed of
my French predecessor. Just then, I was awakened by a strong shaking to see the orderly
of the French major staring at me in disbelief. He had overslept and he thought he was
waking up his boss.
During the next few days we reached the Swiss border and the beautiful Jura
Mountains landscape. It was raining hard, which flushed out the remaining French troops
hiding in the forests. Nobody hindered us as we advanced into this new area. A delightful
villa (a sanatorium) on an island in the Doubs River became my new headquarters. As I
was sitting happily on the balcony in my shirt and trousers, eating my breakfast, a fully
armed French machine gun company marched by below in very orderly fashion.
Fortunately, we had already run telephone lines to the next village, where the French
company was properly received and disarmed. Finally, I was relieved to see the arrival of
the main body of my regiment.
Looking Back
The world stopped to breathe. Everything seemed like a dream. Reluctantly, without
political objectives, and urged by England, France had entered the war.14 To die for
Danzig?15 Hardly. Since no politician gave a political objective, the army leadership also
had no operational objective. It was a standing political tradition in France that during a
political crisis the clear question was posed to the highest military leader: “Can we go to
war with reasonable assurance of winning?” Napoleon considered a 70 percent chance of
success as the minimum necessary for him to attempt a battle or campaign. During the
1905 Moroccan Crisis General Jean Pendrézec, the chief of the French General Staff, had
declared bluntly, “We have nothing to counter a German attack. It will be worse than
1870.” And Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé resigned. During the Moroccan Crisis of
1911 Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux asked General Joseph Joffre if France had a 70
percent chance. When Joffre answered no, Caillaux decided to negotiate.
In 1939 there was no tough military leader at the helm of the French Army. General
Maurice Gamelin was only a second stringer. As General Jules Decamp once told
Daladier, “You will not get a clear answer from him.” Henry de Jouvenel, the French high
commissioner of Syria in 1925, said, “Gamelin is a smart man, well-educated, well-versed
in conversation. In short he possesses all the characteristics of a great military leader—
except backbone.”
Perhaps that was the very reason he was so well accepted among the politicians.
Gamelin could not bring himself contrary to his convictions to say no clearly, which then
brought about France’s decision to enter into the war. General Weygand later opined that
in 1939 the war was entered irresponsibly, without materiel, and without doctrine.16
The same was true of the French senior military leadership, vague and unclear. The
army was administered, but not led. An army that is administrated and not shaped by the
hand of a strong leader and imbued with his spirit to the last man bears the seed of its own
destruction. French defense administration was pathetic as well. France spent billions on
fortifications and the maintenance of obsolescent equipment, instead of putting the money
into modern armaments. The Maginot attitude, “defense at any cost,” had led the thinking
within the French Army in the wrong direction. Forgotten was the warning, “On ne perd
que par la défense” (“One only loses in the defense”). Forgotten were the words of
Marshal Foch, who had adopted Frederick the Great’s concept of “attaquez donc toujours”
(“always attack”). As a result, an army marched onto the battlefield poorly equipped,
poorly led, without political direction and consequently without operational goals, and
with people who did not comprehend the reason for the war. The French approach, then,
was the very antithesis of Guderian’s famous principle, “Nicht Kleckern, sondern Klotzen”
(“Do not dribble, pour”). The “Phony War” period of the winter of 1939–1940 further
demoralized the French Army. Goebbels’s propaganda slogans constantly played on the
French troops:
“We are not conducting any war; war is being conducted against us.”
“Only the plutocrats want war.”
These phrases were known by every Poilu,17 as the resentment grew against England.
This worn-out mass was hit by an army that was commanded, rather than administered.
The Wehrmacht was marked with the imprint of founders, foremost Seeckt, and
operationally led with a purpose by a highly capable corps of leaders. A sound, objective
personnel management policy had brought the most capable officers to the key leadership
positions. Modern thinking had prevailed, particularly in the equipping, arming, and
organizing of the Panzer force. The leadership, thanks to Guderian, was freed from the
telephone line, and the German general was once again leading personally from the front.
The outcome was to be expected. As Gamelin later wrote, “What could you do with a
bunch of soldiers that did not want to fight?” But it was him and the politicians who had
created those soldiers. On a dead officer of General André Corap’s Ninth Army a postcard
was found addressed to Prime Minister Reynaud: “I have taken my own life in order to let
you, Mr. Prime Minister, know that all of my men were courageous soldiers, but that one
cannot lead soldiers with rifles to fight against tanks.”
Near Sedan the German thrust collided with two divisions that were completely and
inadequately organized for modern battle. When the campaign was over one often heard
the phrase, “The winner is Falkenhayn.” In 1916 General Erich Falkenhayn had intended
to bleed the French to death at Verdun, and break their physical power. Twenty-four years
later the results paid off.
Operationally, Manstein had made a major contribution with his proposed breakthrough
scheme of maneuver, rather than a rerun of the Schlieffen Plan. Hitler had accepted
Manstein’s plan over the reservations of the commander in chief of the army and the chief
of the General Staff. Hitler then managed to win over the rest of the senior leadership of
the army. After the war, when we were in prison together, Lieutenant General Walther
Buhle, chief of Army Organization, told me that even Field Marshal Erwin von
Witzleben18 accepted Hitler’s leadership qualities without reservation.
Guderian of course deserves special credit. He had created the Panzer force in the face
of strong resistance, and he pioneered the concept of armored warfare. Without him,
Germany’s victories in Poland, France, and Russia would have been unthinkable. His
concept of generals leading from the front by radio freed us from Schlieffen’s desk-bound
strategist.19
Lessons Learned and Consequences
It was not necessary for us to explore new concepts of leadership and tactics; we were on
the right track. There were, however, lessons to be learned. With superior weaponry and
good leadership anything is possible. Consequently, armament and personnel management
policies were valued more highly than operational and tactical ability. This point of view,
however, was not widely accepted. The opposing point of view credited the successes to
superior German leadership. Hitler thought differently.
So far during the course of the war the relationship between Hitler, the commander in
chief of the army, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, and the chief of the General
Staff, General Franz Halder, had been dysfunctional. Communications had broken down.
But for foreign policy reasons Hitler at that point could not bring himself to replace the
commander of the army.20 Guderian as commander of the army and Manstein as chief of
the General Staff would have been one solution, but that arrangement never would have
been acceptable to a politician like Hitler. Just as Kaiser Wilhelm for reasons of prestige
had procrastinated over the appointments of Hindenburg and Ludendorff during World
War I, Hitler never would have allowed such a “Castor and Pollux” pair under him.
Politicians always fear coups by victorious generals. Hitler wanted to see himself as the
victorious military commander. In France, Léon Blum21 had similar inclinations before the
war. Consequently, everything remained the same in the important area of senior military
leadership.
Politics
Dividing the Anglo-French alliance before the war had been completely out of the
question. But when Churchill ordered the sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir22 he
managed to do just that. The British evacuation from Dunkirk also deeply affected
France’s faith in the alliance. There was a favorable opportunity here for Germany to
exploit, but Hitler did not take advantage of this situation any more than he had taken
advantage of the Czech animosity toward England and France. But at the time, quite
frankly, even I was not in favor of this course of action. I was all in favor of ending once
and for all the fateful duel that had dominated European history since the death of
Charlemagne and the division of his kingdom. Separating France from its colonies and
leaving France as a weakened third- or fourth-rate power would have been too dangerous
—or such was my uninformed opinion at the time.
Rest Period
We spent almost half a year of peaceful quiet in God’s most marvelous country—first near
Paris, where we were waiting for the victory parade that was supposed to follow after the
settlement with England which never came, and then along the Loire River amid the
French royal castles. I had always been fascinated by France, with its culture, its gothic
style, and its castles. I took advantage of the opportunity to indulge my interests in
architecture and history. I led my officers on numerous staff rides through all of France, all
the way down to the northern border of Spain. These trips also served the purpose of
getting them out of Paris. A rest and relaxation site had been established near Saint-Malo,
where Brittany and Normandy meet and Mont Saint Michel rises from the sea. I was
pleased to see that many more of my officers than I had expected were receptive to those
great cultural experiences.
Meanwhile, the preparations advanced for Operation SEELÖWE (SEA LION), the
amphibious invasion of England. On 1 September I wrote in my diary: “The preparations
for the landing in England are apparently under way, but not with the usually expected
intensity.” From what I heard later on Hitler seemed to have been only halfheartedly
committed to the invasion, and even then more as a ruse to mask his intent toward Russia.
Hitler did not like the sea and easily got seasick. His interest in the navy, apparently, was
of a purely technical nature. As Hitler’s adjutant, Major General Gerhard Engel, later told
me, that may have been the real reason SEELÖWE was abandoned. Could it have
succeeded? Nobody can say for sure. General Buhle, one of our judicious General Staff
officers, thought that it would. I am of the opinion that our Luftwaffe was not sufficiently
strong to cover the sea movement against the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy with
the Napoleonic 70 percent probability of success. The fact that we would still have to face
the core of the English Army that had been evacuated from Dunkirk did not make the odds
any better.
The People and the Country
France returned to normal life, happy that the war was over. There was no sign of hatred,
except against England. It was interesting to see how sparsely populated the country was.
Half of the ground was untilled. The land was used only where it was comfortable and
yielded good crops with little effort. France had evolved since 1914. In those days it was
hygienically behind Germany, now it was our equal. The people were polite, friendly, but
still proud and nationalistic. The more you got to know the French, the more you respected
them and found them agreeable.
Along the Loire River my staff was quartered in Castle Rochambeau, which belonged
to the family of the same name. The Rochambeaus were tall, blond, blue-eyed, handsome,
and very nice people. They lived in a magnificent old castle. The servants, small in
numbers, black, and completely different, lived in caves that were carved out as houses
close by on the cliffs of the Loire. The Marquise, a fine old lady over seventy, returned
from her refuge one day, determined to fight for her home. Her husband had died and both
her sons had been killed in the first war. When we fulfilled all of her wishes in less than
five minutes, she was happy and satisfied. During the three months we were there we
never had any differences. Otherwise, the relations with the old French families were on
both sides proper and correct, without injuring the French pride. Many of the older
families had been generals and admirals for four generations and had an absolute
understanding of all military matters.
Actually, there was one unfortunate incident during those months. A clerk from a
temporarily attached staff had found the uniform of a deceased admiral in the castle. He
put it on and made the rounds of all the bars with an accordion, and ended up drunk in a
ditch. In tears, the sister of the deceased admiral stood in front of me, deeply hurt. I got
very mad. We soon apprehended the colorful bird, and the beating he received was one of
the best things I have done in my life.23 The following day I personally returned the
uniform and apologized.
Meanwhile, there was a great deal to be done. I took the opportunity to fix the
regiment’s logistical issues, which ran from beds for every soldier to resoled boots, white
aprons for the cooks, fresh vegetables, stocked pantries, a swimming pool, firing ranges,
and most of all the tools for the different trades.
By this time Operation SEELÖWE had been completely shelved and the division was
transferred to East Prussia. There we encountered quite a bit of animosity from the old
soldiers of World War I, officers as well as enlisted. There was quite a bit of tension. They
were resentful that these young snots of the Wehrmacht had accomplished in six weeks
what they had not been able to do in years.
When we left France, the relations with the population were good. There was no talk
about resistance and partisan warfare. How did that situation change? A small group of
Frenchmen, a handful of people, thought that the good relations were detrimental to the
honor of France, and they wanted to do something about it. They decided to do something
that would force the Germans to react, and consequently make their own people take a
stand for or against. A harmless German soldier was thrown in front of a train in Paris. As
expected, retaliatory measures were taken and the vicious cycle of partisan warfare
started.24
12
Greece
3rd Panzer Regiment
When I walked into my office on 12 December 1940 my reassignment orders to take
command of the 3rd Panzer Regiment lay on the desk. I was not at all happy to leave my
great 1st Rifle Regiment, to which I had grown so attached over the last few years. Nor
was it easy to leave my adjutant, Braune-Kriekau. He was energetic, independent, and
always stood by his opinion fearlessly. You do not find an officer like that often.
On 17 December I arrived at my new regiment. I immediately liked what I saw. The
unit’s first commander, Colonel (later Colonel General) Josef Harpe, had similar ideas
about training as I had; so I did not have to change anything. The regiment had been
formed from the old 12th Cavalry Regiment; the officers and the NCOs were still mostly
from Saxony. The enlisted were mostly from Vienna, but they had served the regiment
quite well. The Viennese were technically competent and they obeyed their officers. Since
the latter were far above average, my command functions during combat operations could
be limited to keeping the troops communicating and coordinating everything.
My regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant Rämsch, knew the troops and the technology.
He had a rare understanding of human behavior that was deeply rooted in his love for even
the lowest ranking soldier. His completely objective judgment, regardless of his personal
feelings, was especially valuable to me. He was devoted to the regiment, and later in the
war he returned to it as its commander. He also had a similar connection with the Austrian
citizens of our garrison town of Mödling.
The relations with the people of Mödling were good. We also had good relations with
the local Party members, whose level of class was much higher than those in the old
Reich. You could see that the National Socialist Party in Austria had evolved from the old
imperial German Peoples’ Party of Austria. The Kreisleiter in Mödling was an old officer
of the Royal and Imperial Navy, who remained what he had been before he went into
politics.
Old General Carl von Bardolff once visited my officers’ mess. He had been the chief of
staff of the Austro-Hungarian Royal and Imperial Army during World War I, and before
that he was the chairman of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s military cabinet. He had been
sitting in the same car with the archduke when he and his wife were assassinated in
Sarajevo. It was quite an interesting evening. I always enjoyed hearing about the events of
world history from a direct participant.
Heading South
Our follow-on mission was in the Balkans. Mussolini had foolishly attacked Greece, but
was clearly rebuffed in Albania. We could not abandon him now, especially considering
Churchill’s long-standing concept of conquering Europe through its soft underbelly, the
Balkans. On 5 March we rolled out heading south. All of Mödling was at the train station,
seeing us off with enthusiasm. As we passed through Budapest everybody was yelling
“Heil Hitler!” and giving the Hitler salute. The Hungarians were peculiar, highly
emotional people. You really had to know them well to be able to understand them.
General Bardolff had told me that he thought the Hungarians had no mind for business.
The Jews had filled that void, but they could only maintain their position as true
Hungarians. So they became true Hungarians. The other ethnic groups, the Slovaks, the
Romanians, the Rusyns, and the Serbs, were just poor, uncultured farmers. They could
only move up by becoming Hungarian. For quite some time I had been of the opinion that
Hungary had caused more damage to us in World War I, with their totally failed
Hungarization policy, than had the Czechs through their treason. General Bardolff agreed
with my analysis of Hungary.
The train advanced slowly through Transylvania and then Bukovina into Romania. The
railroad systems had not improved since the last war. The train frequently stopped for
anywhere from six to nineteen hours to allow oncoming trains to pass. I had an
opportunity to meet with the local population during the long train stops. They were
almost all impoverished Romanians wearing opanci1 and hand-woven fabrics. They did
not want anything to do with Hungary. “When will we become German?” was a question I
heard often.
On 11 March we crossed the Hungarian-Romanian border. Across the plains of the
Moldova River the train passed Focşani and the Măgura Odobeştilor Mountain, the old
battlefields of 1917. We had to wait for twenty-four hours at the bridge crossing the
Danube in Cernavodă. The Danube Valley with its majestic plains and the far hills of the
Dobruja Region were relaxing to the eye after the Bărăgan Plain. For a long time we
stopped, waiting for a locomotive near the old Trajan’s Wall.2
“Bulgarians will not send a locomotive; Bulgarians receive poorly their new friends.
Bulgarians bad people, no culture.” That was the opinion of the train station master. There
was a great deal of hatred between the Romanians and Bulgarians. We had been in
Romania for two weeks. Once we crossed the border into Bulgaria the contrast was
amazing. Sometime earlier I had been talking about Romania with the diplomat Otto
Kiep3 at my Berlin club. I thought that it would not be a good idea to take too much
Romanian territory. He replied, “Just take a piece of the dung pile. It will still be a dung
pile.”
Bulgaria
Bulgaria was a completely different place. Tight order, good organization, and a friendly
population greeted us enthusiastically. After two weeks on the train, a bath in Sofia was
more than a blessing. I attended Easter mass in the Alexander Newski Cathedral, a grand,
incredible ceremony with marvelous chants. One priest with a magnificent baritone voice
stood out in particular. But I excused myself before everybody started kissing. Garlic is an
indispensable staple in Bulgaria.
My regiment was quartered in the vicinity of Kyustendil. On one Sunday I managed to
get away to the famous Rila Monastery. From village to village I saw the young men
hiking to the dances. The sound of the recorder could be heard everywhere, and the men
and women moved in quintuple time, dressed in magical old costumes that were different
from town to town. It was an unforgettable image. The Rila Monastery had been the
national refuge of the Bulgarians during the times of the Turkish onslaught. Without the
Rila Monastery there would be no Bulgarian nation. Now it was in disrepair. Only thirty
monks still lived there from a community that once numbered three hundred. The young
do not want to become monks anymore.
The Bulgarians had worked hard and with a purpose since the last war. Now they
wanted their payback. They wanted to control the Aegean Sea and they wanted
Macedonia. They could not do that alone, so they put all their hopes on Germany.
The New Operation
The purpose of the new operation for which we came south was to subdue Greece in order
to help Italy out of its predicament in Albania. We were not supposed to enter Yugoslavian
territory because that state had just joined the Triple Alliance. That required an attack into
the strongly fortified border positions of the Metaxas Line, between Lake Dojran, the
Greek-Yugoslav border, and the Aegean Sea. The attack was supposed to be spearheaded
by infantry and mountain divisions. The 2nd Panzer Division was to cross the Roupel Pass
and follow on. We did not feel very comfortable with this plan, but suddenly the situation
changed. The pro-German Yugoslav government in Belgrade was overthrown and the
follow-on government sided with the enemy. That gave us the opportunity to push one
Panzer division through Yugoslavia toward Salonika, even though the roads were poor.
The thrust through the poorly fortified terrain west of Lake Dojran would achieve an
envelopment and completely dislodge the entire Metaxas Line.
Toward Salonika
On 5 April the 2nd Panzer Division was near Petrich, prepared to launch the thrust west
onto Strumica. After reaching that town we were supposed to turn south and move west of
Lake Dojran, directly toward Kilkis-Salonica. My mission was to push forward on the
southern bank of the Strumica River with one Panzer battalion, one infantry battalion, and
one artillery battalion. It was a mild, beautiful night. In the bright moonlight we could see
the mountains of Greece and Yugoslavia.
On 6 April at 0520 hours we were at the ready. The Yugoslavian border guards had fled
and the Bulgarian border guards were happily shooting into the air, waving us through.
The Yugoslav border was secured in a very odd manner. First there was a row of tight
bushes, and then a dry fence made from twigs that made a loud cracking noise when
anyone tried to cross it, and then a one-hundred-meter-wide open meadow. On the far side
of the meadow there was a dog shed every fifty meters. There was only one human guard
for every four to five guard dogs. It was primitive and simple, but impossible to sneak
through undetected. Our troops from the Brandenburg Regiment4 had completely failed to
cross it the previous night.
Once we got across the border the roads usable for tanks ended. I had to get in behind
our right column, which had been advancing faster on improved roadways and already had
destroyed the Yugoslav 49th Infantry Regiment, capturing two hundred prisoners and
sixteen guns. There was hardly any resistance. Yugoslavia, an artificial creation of the
Versailles Treaty, fell apart at the first attack.
The bridges and the roads, combined with the rain and the bottomless mud, caused us
more headaches. My battle group was supposed to swing out toward the left again near
Megalasterna. But it took us hours to pull everything through the mud. I had driven ahead
and was sitting in the middle of a field waiting for everything to close up. Slowly the first
vehicle, then the first Panzer emerged from the mud, as the regiment followed piecemeal.
Fortunately, there was no enemy. Salonika was close, but the damned mud near the border
had slowed us down.
It was turning dark. I was sitting in my Kübel, sleeping, napping, and waiting.
Suddenly I woke up with the bright headlights of two vehicles glaring in my face. I
thought that they must be out of their minds, driving around like that in the middle of a
war. I woke up the regimental clerk and told him, “Go straighten them out, will you?”
As he stood right in front of the lead truck I could hear shouting and confused voices. I
was out of my vehicle in a flash and immediately realized that I was standing in the
middle of a Greek company. I pulled my pistol, instinctively grabbed the rifle from the
first Greek soldier, and started yelling at them. That did it. The Greeks immediately
formed up, standing at attention. There were sixty of them and only six of us. We did have
a submachine gun, but the soldier carrying it did not know how to use it.
In the meantime, I had managed to get the tanks, one rifle company, and one battery out
of the mud. By that point the ground in the mud patch had been torn up so completely that
nothing else could move. With the small force I had available I pushed on via Kilkis
toward Salonika.
The Greeks Surrender
After we took Kilkis we received our follow-on order via the radio, “Change direction;
position your unit behind Group Vaerst.” The reason for the order was not transmitted.5
We had enough gas to make it to Salonika and for twenty kilometers in and around
Salonika. If I followed the order, which would have required a considerable detour, I
would not have made it to Salonika. But if Group Vaerst got in trouble, I would have to
support them. Naturally, at this point the whole wireless radio system failed completely. It
was a hellish situation. Without knowledge of the situation, the outcome of the operation
and the fate of the division depended on whatever we did or did not do. Finally, a long,
encoded radio message came through. But the signal officer did not have the right code,
which had gone into effect at midnight. Time-consuming radio messages flew back and
forth. I finally lay down in a ditch along the road and forced myself to get some sleep. I
was woken up with the report that the Greek East Macedonia Army Detachment had
surrendered at midnight, and at 0700 hours we were to march into Salonika. The hardest
and most nerve-racking crises are always the ones where absolutely nothing is going on.
The commander of the East Macedonia Army Detachment was sitting in Salonika when
he received the report that “one thousand Panzers” were approaching from Paliokastro.
Shortly thereafter he learned that “one thousand additional Panzers” were near Kilkis. At
that point he lost his nerve, because he had considered a tank thrust impossible. But the
situation for the Greeks at that point was not that unfavorable. They still held considerable
sectors of the Metaxas Line and especially the important Roupel Pass. The Greek
commander did not really know what was moving against Salonika. In fact, it was only
elements of a division whose main body was still far behind at the border, stuck in the
mud. Our Panzers positioned near Salonika only had gas for a few more kilometers, not
enough for a real fight. No supplies would make it forward for forty-eight hours. Would
the Greeks still have surrendered if they had known all that? The old adage is never to
give up in war; the enemy is at least as bad off as you are. That was certainly true in this
case.
Salonika
We entered Salonika on 9 April. The world had gone totally crazy. The city was packed
with people shouting, “Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler, Bravo, Bravo!” Flowers were thrown into
our vehicles. All hands were raised in the Hitler salute. Were we occupying an enemy
town, or were we returning back home to a victory parade? Overall the Greek troops had
fought brilliantly and quite tenaciously. They had been the toughest of all of our
adversaries so far. They even fired on diving Stukas with their rifles. Their fortifications
were cleverly designed. The fighting was more difficult than for the Maginot Line. Up to
that point the Greek soldiers had been considered the worst in the Balkans.
Of course, we had to deal with the traditional ethnic and national hostilities of the
Balkans. During the surrender the Greeks specifically requested not to be handed over to
the Italians or the Bulgarians.
North of Salonika my regiment and staff were quartered in Nicopolis. When I opened
my window in the morning I could see snow-covered Mount Olympus against the blue
sky, hovering over the dense fog of the Warda Plains. It was overwhelming. I had seen a
lot of the world. Nothing compared to Mount Olympus. So there I sat, pensively in awe,
holding a copy of Homer that I had brought along. I never put him away while I was in
Greece.
We had a much-needed halt for several days. The divisional headquarters asked me to
find a German lady who owned an estate in the vicinity of Kilkis. Her late husband had
been a Greek. She was over seventy and had been in the country for more than forty-five
years, a fine, and tender, lovely lady. During the period that Kilkis lay between the fronts,
the mobs started looting. The authorities were helpless. With her bodyguards, a White
Russian and a Circassian, she went to town and managed to accomplish what the
authorities had failed to do. She ended the looting and reestablished order by stepping out
into the market square and declaring very succinctly that as soon as the Germans arrived,
they would execute anyone that they found with looted goods. And then she told them just
to return everything right back where they had found it. It was still an enormous
accomplishment. Sitting across from her, I would not have thought it possible.
The battle losses in this sector had been minimal. We had more casualties from dog
bites. At night countless dogs swarmed around the edges of every Greek village,
protecting it as they had since ancient times against two- and four-legged thieves. They
hunted in packs. One dog barked in the front and the others crept up quietly on their
victim from behind and then pounced. One time only the high boots under my tanker’s
trousers protected me from becoming another of their victims.
Looking Back
The Greek head of state, Ioannis Metaxas, had built the fortification lines that were named
after him in order to protect against a Bulgarian attack. Only the eastern tip of the country,
the area around Alexandroupoli (earlier called Dedeagatch) remained outside the
fortification line. The fortifications were very modern and offered complete protection
against Stukas and heavy sustained fire. The weapons were protected by concrete or
armor. The design more or less mirrored the Maginot Line. River sections, impassable
mountain terrain, and artificial obstacles made the line even more complex. The whole
layout was cleverly adapted to the surrounding terrain. They also used numerous false
bunkers. The fires of all weapons interlocked. The line tied into the Aegean Sea in the east
and to the Yugoslav border in the west, without any possibility of a bypass. It was an
absolutely impenetrable obstacle for the Bulgarians, with their technologically inferior
equipment.
The situation changed completely when Yugoslavia entered into the war on the side of
Greece. The Yugoslavs were supposed to close the gap in western Macedonia between
Albania and Lake Dojran. When the Yugoslavian Third Army dispersed within a day or
two without much of a fight, the Greeks were left in a position where their only viable
course of action was a total withdrawal of all their forces to the short line from Mount
Olympus to the Adriatic Sea near Korfu, to link up there with the English forces. But the
fortifications and infrastructure of this short line had not been developed for such a
contingency, and the Greeks did not attempt to hold that line. Consequently, they lost not
only the campaign, but the whole country.
The English had arrived in Greece with two divisions, one from New Zealand and one
from Australia, a tank brigade, and an air element. They were located in a very favorable
position at the Vardar River (the Greek name is Axios), intending to catch the 2nd Panzer
Division in its flank as it was moving toward Salonika. Considering the condition of the
division’s lead elements, there was no doubt who would have been successful. But instead,
the English corps just stood by without intervening as the East Macedonia Army
Detachment was destroyed.
Map 2. The Balkan Campaign, April–June 1941. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
On the German side our knowledge of the layout of the Metaxas Line was nebulous at
best. German and Bulgarian intelligence had failed completely to identify the
improvements that had been made to the positions. Had we known all that in advance, we
most likely would have developed a different scheme of maneuver.
Two Austrian mountain divisions performed exceptionally well during this battle, the
5th under General Julius Ringel, and the 6th under General Ferdinand Schörner. Before
the other divisions attacking the Metaxas Line had achieved their objectives, those two
divisions took the western flank of the line, and during the subsequent pursuit they
destroyed the Greek reserves. The 2nd Panzer Division, whose appearance near Salonika
had caused Lieutenant General Konstantinos Bacopoulus to make the decision to
surrender and thus brought about the final outcome, had nothing to show other than
marching efforts, albeit under incredible difficulties.
The New Situation
Now that it was too late, the Greek Army’s leadership tried to pull back their troops
toward the short axis running from Mount Olympus to the Adriatic Sea. They were
completely destroyed by the German units that had rushed through southern Serbia. As
always, the English divisions were like rocks in the surf, refusing any kind of coordination
with the Greeks, and conducting their own naval evacuation. Initially they intended to stop
the German advance by holding the Mount Olympus line and farther toward the west.
They believed such a course of action would be feasible, considering the incredible
defensive advantage of the mountainous terrain and the traditional toughness and courage
of the British soldiers.
On the German side our objective was the destruction of the English forces, which
would result in the conquest of all of Greece. The Twelfth Army initiated the pincer
movement against the British Expeditionary Corps. On the German left wing the 2nd
Panzer Division was supposed to attack on both sides of Mount Olympus, with the 6th
Mountain Division attacking across Mount Olympus, thrusting toward Thessaly. Larisa
was the objective for all forces. I commanded the left column initially, with Panzer
Battalion Decker, one artillery battalion, and one motorcycle rifle battalion subordinate to
me.
Toward the Tempe Valley
In his great play Faust, Goethe set the classical Walpurgis Night in the Tempe Valley.
Mephistopheles opened with the question, “Are any Britons here? They are always
traveling, to track down sites of battles.”6
Map 3. Battle of Mount Olympus, 6–30 April 1941. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
The same question was on my mind as I approached Lieutenant Colonel Decker, the
commander of my lead battalion which was just attacking Panteleimon, an old Venetian
fortress that lay between Mount Olympus and the sea on a blocking mountain ridge. The
British were there. It was clear that our frontal attack was bogging down. We could not
observe the enemy in the jagged, bushy terrain; the Panzers could not mount a reasonable
attack; and our artillery fire was relegated to complete ineffectiveness.
I halted the attack temporarily, reconnoitered, and determined that our present course of
action could not succeed. I let the tanks conduct another feint attack. In the meantime, I
pulled out the motorcycle rifle battalion and sent it through the mountains to envelop the
defending New Zealanders. When the 2nd Battalion, 304th Rifle Regiment arrived, I sent
them around even farther to the right. That unit’s left flank man was supposed to march
along the ridge that ran toward the enemy. The battalion itself was to move beyond the
ridge, and without letting the enemy push them back, penetrate deep into their rearward
lines. “Do not end up in front of the enemy, under any circumstances,” I ordered, “even if
your adjacent unit is crying for support.”
We spent the night moving forward through horrible terrain. At 0900 hours on 16 April
we were to be ready. Shortly prior to that I had formed up the Panzer battalion, one rifle
company, and one engineer company to fix the enemy frontally, while the artillery brought
the ridge under fire. We took heavy counterfire as the attack started. The tank in front of
me hit a mine and exploded. As a piece of paper came flying back from the smoke cloud,
Rämsch caught it. It was a picture of a woman. Then from the smoke an uninjured
lieutenant emerged who had commanded the destroyed tank. We handed him the picture of
his wife. In total surprise he said, “But I have it here in my breast pocket… .” It was not
there anymore. Who knows how such things happen.
And then it was all over. Under pressure of our envelopment the New Zealanders
abandoned their positions, leaving all their equipment behind and disappearing toward the
rear. That was done, but there was still hell to pay. The mule path that we had been
moving forward on had to be reinforced to handle tanks and wheeled vehicles. That took
time, a lot of time. Meanwhile, a number of recon patrols mounted on quickly
requisitioned donkeys rode toward the entrance of the Tempe Valley.
It took twenty-four hours, until 1100 hours on 17 April, before we managed to get
anything across that damned mountain. Then we moved into the Tempe Valley Pass. To
our left and right the rock walls went straight up for three hundred meters, and the Pineios
River raged through the middle of the valley. On the opposite side of the river there was a
road, but it was out of our reach. Railroad tracks ran on our side of the river. There was no
enemy for the time being. At all costs I wanted to prevent getting caught bunched-up in
the valley by enemy artillery. The results would have been horrendous.7
I took only one tank and one rifle company forward with me. We continued on over the
railroad tracks. We were able to get through the first tunnel, but just short of the second
tunnel the track bed had been blown up, and the tunnel entrance was damaged as well. A
freight car sat trapped between the two positions. The Tommies sat on the far side,
shooting into the tunnel. That was as far as we could go. The river was torrential. It was
the Centaur Chiron who said, “Mount! I may freely ask then and respond. Where are you
bound? You stand here by the banks. I am prepared to carry you beyond.”8 But Chiron
was not there for us. It was still two weeks before Walpurgis Night.
We had to risk it, even without Chiron. Two lieutenants in undershorts and high boots
dived into the whirlpools of the Pineios. They came back and told me it just might work,
and I decided to risk one Panzer. The behemoth moved down the steep railroad
embankment and into the water and then the driver stepped on the gas. The water came
over the turret, but the exhaust stayed clear. It worked. Two more tanks followed, then
everything stopped because of an explosion in the roadbed on the far side of the river.
Fifty Australians that were ready to give themselves up had run into the mountains when
somebody inadvertently fired on them by accident. In the meantime, I sent the rifle
battalion outside the pass across the Pineios to repair the road damage on the far side.
As night came on, the air was full of balsamic spring fragrances, a nightingale was
singing beautifully, and the English artillery was firing full force into the pass. Rock
avalanches fell from both sides of the valley, increasing the effect of each round tenfold.
Thank God I had halted my main body at the valley entrance.
On the morning of the 18th we pressed on. Every half hour a tank made it through the
river. We lost two tanks in the water, and the riverbed was churned up. We had to shift the
location of the ford frequently. As soon as a platoon assembled on the far side, I sent it to
the western exit of the valley. In the late afternoon we were ready. I had enough tanks, one
rifle battalion, and one 100 mm artillery battery massed at the exit. We attacked. The
Australians defended themselves desperately, but they had no tanks, and their antitank
capabilities were limited since they had counted on the rough “No-Go” terrain. The enemy
was caught totally by surprise, wondering where we had come from. Echoing Goethe’s
pygmies on that classical Walpurgis Night…
Do not ask us how we got here,
For the fact is we are here!9
We broke through line after enemy line. Their trucks went up in flames left and right,
and we destroyed what few antitank guns they had. We were taking heavy fire from the
decisive Hill 214, but we punched through it. Completely thrown back, the enemy
dispersed. When we could see no more targets in the tanks’ gun sights and we started to
encounter mines, I halted the attack. The 6th Mountain Division was not close enough to
us yet, but we could hear the sounds of battle from their direction. My troops all fell into a
well-deserved sleep. Through their incredible efforts we had overcome obstacles that the
English had considered impassable. As one of their captured intelligence reports later
read, “The 3rd Panzer Regiment knows how to cross terrain which we consider ‘No-Go’
for tanks.”
We had fought against the Australian 16th Brigade and the New Zealand 21st Battalion.
New Zealand’s official World War II history praised this unit highly:
The 21st Battalion had the misfortune to be detached from the Division during the
commencement of the Greek campaign, and came under another formation, and in
the heavy fighting bore the brunt of an attack in which they fought with
determination and great courage. They were overwhelmed by greatly superior forces
and scattered; their losses were heavy. In light of the full details which history has
now revealed, I wish to pay a tribute to the rearguard action that the 21st Battalion
fought from the Tempe position where they suffered so heavily.10
We too willingly praised our courageous enemy. Imprisoned New Zealanders acted with
dignity, refused to make any statements, and firmly believed in the victory of the Empire.
Unfortunately, the main body of the English forces escaped. We had destroyed only what
had been in front of the left column of the 2nd Panzer Division. They had not committed
their tanks anywhere. In Larisa we found only one English light tank that had broken
down with mechanical problems. The original reports of enemy tanks destroyed actually
had been trucks. That was a mistake easy enough to make in the dusk.
Larisa
We were rolling toward Larisa bright and early on 19 April. When we reached the town
we found complete English supply depots that had been abandoned. Our first supply
aircraft soon started landing at the airfield. A few hours after us the lead elements of the
6th Mountain Division arrived. They had accomplished an incredible marching distance
and were bitterly disappointed to find that we had beaten them to the objective. Earlier
Larisa had been destroyed in an earthquake. The following day, after the dead and
wounded had just been recovered, the Italians bombed the town. Not a building was left
unscathed. But from those ruins the lavish splendor of a southern spring bloomed forth,
accompanied by swarms of Eurasian Hobbies feeding on the insects.
During the follow-on advance our division reverted to the second echelon and was held
up by the excruciatingly slow and horrific traffic congestion on the route to Athens. The
road had been blown up, but the English had abandoned everything. In the air our aircraft
all vectored toward the English port of debarkation. So far, the Royal Air Force had not
attempted to intervene. Had they done so, they would have had plenty of targets of
opportunity and we would have learned a hard lesson on how not to take Panzer divisions
through mountainous terrain.
We had the leisure to ponder these thoughts at Pharsalus, where the decisive battle
between Caesar and Pompey had been fought. In order to throw forces against Pompey’s
superior mounted troops, Caesar had turned the soldiers of his famous X Legion into
mounted troops, but not with much success. When I looked out from my vehicle I could
see the plains covered with the soldiers of my regiment who, like Caesar’s legionnaires,
floundered around ineffectively on various forms of four-legged transport. Perhaps the
place really did have something like a genius loci.11
The population had fled. In the old Balkans tradition the young and pretty girls and the
women and children had been sent into the mountains. The locals were quite surprised that
we did not conduct war in the old Balkan tradition, but rather in a civilized manner. West
of Athens the pursuit came to an end.
Back and Forth through Greece
Again, just as in France, days of endless pleasure followed the exertion of combat. Every
man in the regiment got a chance to go to Athens and see the Acropolis, where I arranged
for expert guided tours. Previously, I had an image of the Acropolis as an unplanned
cluster of beautiful buildings, but what I finally saw was quite different. Nowhere had I
seen a finer use of space as there and later at Delphi. The visitor’s eye is led consciously
through the architecture, from building to building, from highlight to highlight. The master
accomplishment was the positioning of the Temple of Athena Nike oblique to the axis of
the Propylaea. It was so much more different than the architecture of Rome.
Naturally, I went to Marathon… but I did not think about Miltiades (the Younger), but
rather about an unknown master armorer from Athens. Up until the Persian Wars, the
Greek warrior carried a small round shield with a grip in the middle. With this shield he
could block enemy projectiles launched from afar, but he needed a lot of space for this
activity. The master blacksmith had the ingenious idea of adding a second handle to the
shield through which one could slip his arm. That meant the shield could be bigger. It now
covered the whole man, and now the Greeks could fight in a closed, tight phalanx. That
formation allowed them to cut through the loosely deployed Persian masses like a knife
through butter. Since the Persians stayed with their antiquated equipment up to
Alexander’s period, the Greeks won every time and Western Civilization did not go under.
On a visit to South Africa after the war I learned that Shaka, the great Zulu chieftain, won
his victories with the same technology, and thereby established his empire.
Delphi was another place I went to see. Without fail I wanted to visit the place where
the most profound saying of Greek antiquity was once engraved: “Gnothi Seauton”—
Know thyself. I also visited the Peloponnese and Acrocorinth, where the two Greek
goddesses met, Pallas Athena coming from the north, and the erotic cult of the Middle
Eastern Aphrodite. All the old tales from mythology came to life for me here in this
country. I then went on to Mycenae, Tiryns, and across country toward Olympia and
Patras. That was a route that my parents had done in 1908 on horseback over mule tracks.
They were accompanied by one of my father’s Greek students at the Kriegsakademie,
then-Captain Metaxas, the same Ioannis Metaxas who as the head of the Greek
government died shortly before our campaign started, and after whom the Metaxas Line
had been named.
Goethe in Greece
Goethe had never been to Greece. Nevertheless, when we left Sparta, driving across the
fog-bound Eurotas River Valley, and the ruins of the medieval Venetian city of Mistra
slowly rose from the swirling mist, I felt like I was in the middle of Faust, Part II.
“Yes, it darkens of a sudden, lifting mists unveil not brightness, Gloomy gray and
dun of stonework. Masonry confronts the Vision… .”12
And he described the scene:
Inner Courtyard of a Castle.
Surrounded by Opulent and Fanciful
Medieval Architecture.13
The only difference was that Faust did not appear “at the top of the stairs in knightly court
garb of the Middle Ages.”14 Instead, an old, blind abbess supported by two nuns invited
me to enter the convent. She was a noble apparition. She told me, “Tell the Führer to make
Greece into a German protectorate, a German province. We will endure it. But he cannot
ever turn us over to the Italians.” Then she disappeared.
Although Goethe had never been to Greece, somebody surely had told him about
Sparta, the Eurotas River Valley, and Mistra. I could not imagine a more accurate portrait
of this area than the one the poet had drawn in the second part of Faust.
Patras
I finally linked up with my regiment again in Patras. The town had one problem. It was
not the Greeks, but rather the Italian POWs who earlier had been captured by the Greeks.
The Italian Navy had moved into the harbor with minesweepers, and at night the sailors
were giving the locals a hard time. The Greeks suffered silently, with pent-up hatred. Not a
single shoeshine boy would shine an Italian’s boots. I visited the Italian naval captain to
discuss the locals’ complaints. He was not surprised at all, suggesting that the situation
could be worse. He promised to improve the situation, but in turn he wanted to have a
nearby prisoner camp full of Italians moved to Patras. I turned him down. That was the
last thing we needed. The freed Italians would have turned Patras upside down.
On the evening of 10 May I had the Italians over for dinner. In their honor we had
erected a flag pole with an Italian flag. One of the local farmers, who was there to sell us
chickens, saw it and jumped to the wrong conclusion. He grabbed his chickens and started
to leave, saying, “No chickens for Italians, only for Germans.” It took quite a bit to
convince him that we were Germans and for him to leave the chickens.
The Greeks played rather clever politics. Every Greek told every German soldier how
much he admired Germany and how much he disdained the Italians. The Greek authorities
overloaded us with complaints against the Italians, apparently ignoring any wrongdoing
on the part of Germans. But our troops definitely were not choirboys, and there were
instances of misconduct. I asked the Greek prefect to come and see me and told him that
while we were sympathetic to the Greek complaints, they had to remember that the
Italians were our allies. Any insult against the Italians would force us to take their side
automatically. Naturally, I worked at fostering good relations with the Italians.
On 16 May we boarded troop ships and sailed, escorted by two Italian destroyers. We
passed Ithaca on 17 May and woke up the next morning in the harbor at Taranto, Italy,
where troop trains were waiting for us. On 21 May we off-loaded in Nuremberg.
Bitter Aftertaste
Both ships that had brought us from Patras to Taranto hit mines and sank on their second
trip. They had not been escorted by the Italian Navy on that trip. The losses were
substantial. The life preservers had been thrown into the water before the ships stopped,
and by the time the men got into the water they were beyond reach. Even most of the good
swimmers drowned. They immediately had started swimming back toward Ithaca,
confident that they could cover the few kilometers easily. Almost all of them succumbed
to hypothermia. The Greek coastal inhabitants did what they could to help, and were able
to rescue many soldiers from a watery grave.
13
Russia
The Great Turning Point
I had just been appointed the commander of the 2nd Panzer Brigade when I was called to
Berlin to report to General von Schell, to the Organizational Directorate headed by
Lieutenant General Walther Buhle, and to Colonel General Friedrich Fromm, who was the
de facto minister of war. I had resisted vigorously all efforts to get me to come back to
Berlin to work on the issue of organizing the motorization of the whole army, but my luck
eventually ran out and the problem finally caught up with me again. On 7 June I returned
from Berlin, and I recorded in my journal the summary of my conversations with those
three gentlemen:
“We are at a decision point in the war. England has been driven out of Europe, but is
still sitting in the Mediterranean. Our follow-on mission will have to be their complete
removal from there in order to control the oil of Asia Minor, the cotton of Egypt, and the
considerable treasures of Africa, and to be able to transport everything safely across the
Mediterranean. This conflict will be difficult, time consuming, and can only be conducted
with minimal forces. But with our overall superiority in materiel and personnel, success
should not be in doubt.
“What do we do with the rest of the overwhelming mass of the Wehrmacht? England
will not return to the Continent, even with American assistance. That would be suicide for
them. To keep Europe subdued, we only need minimal forces, since almost everyone has
accepted the New Order, some of them most agreeably.
“The remaining problem is Russia. Its existence forces us to maintain a strong army in
the East. At the present time we are so superior to the Russians that they cannot seriously
compete with us. For this reason, they supply us with almost more than we can accept, and
they steer a demonstratively friendly pro-German course. What will the situation be,
however, when Russia believes that they are materially strong and Germany has a crop
failure or is attacked by America, or everything happens at the same time? Then Russia
will pursue its political goals against us with all means. In other words, it will attack us
together with England and America. The tight encirclement [of Germany] that we have
destroyed will be replaced by a more dangerous wide one.
“For us the only course of action must be to attack Russia as soon as possible, to
destroy it, to gain control of the Baltic States, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus, and then to
turn our attention calmly to the Anglo-Americans.
“The other tasks, like the fight for the Mediterranean, the occupation of Europe, the
battle for the Atlantic, can be accomplished in passing. An English invasion of the
Continent is not imminent. France is no longer materially capable of land warfare—and
besides, through our clever politics they have been won over because the brutal English
policies (Mers-el-Kébir) brought them into our fold.1
“It is a disadvantage that public opinion in Germany will not understand these lines of
thought. [The attack on Russia] will have to be a purely cabinet-led and preemptive war.
Furthermore, the supply of Russian oil and wheat will be interrupted and will probably not
resume until year’s end. Both issues can and must be accepted as reality.
“Once Russia is subdued, an encirclement and blockade of Germany becomes
impossible. And at that point we can ignore any ups or downs in the public opinion on the
home front. We will have free reign then to crush England. Perhaps rapprochement might
even be possible.”
A few days later, on 12 June, I noted, “Once again the problem with Russia. It would
be, of course, a political achievement of the highest order to involve Russia actively in the
fight against England.” Now, after the fact, it is impossible to determine if such would
have been possible.
The Death of the Kaiser
On 9 June, Kaiser Wilhelm II was buried in Doorn, Holland. A tragic life came to an end.
He was extremely gifted, always intended the best, always sensed the right thing, but he
was never a leader. The level of his intellect was not equaled by strength of character and
personality. Compounding that was his lack of understanding of human nature that
prevented the right individuals—Tirpitz, Gallwitz, Goltz—access to the right positions of
power, but instead put completely incompetent individuals—Bethmann-Hollweg, Moltke
(the Younger)—into the highest positions. I do not blame the Kaiser for his failures during
the early stages of the revolution. The game was already over by that point, and he was not
the right man himself to take the helm with a firm hand. In the eyes of the people his flight
to Holland made him and the monarchy look weak and outdated, a factor that German
domestic politics will always have to account for. The German monarchy was over for all
times.
But because of the Kaiser’s sincerity and upstanding morality, we should be grateful
that he lived to see Germany’s recovery, and—that he was spared knowledge of the
greatest catastrophe in German history.
Russia
The war against Russia started on 22 June 1941. I was not happy being left out of it,
sitting around passively, just patching up tanks. I had an idea of what was to come. I
understood the situation and had given it a lot of thought. You can look at the Russian
problem from several different perspectives. I want to approach it from today (1979).
Russia had been a problem for Germany since the Wars of Liberation.2 “In a hundred
years Europe will be either French or Cossack,” Napoleon had said to General Armand de
Caulaincourt3 as he hurried out of Russia on a sled, on his way from Vilnius to Paris.
“Only in times of internal confusion can Russia be defeated,” reasoned von Clausewitz.
And General Joseph Radetzky, Austrian field marshal Karl von Schwarzenberg’s chief
of staff during the Wars of Liberation, saw Russia as the greatest of worries. No other
politician or statesman had, like this great soldier, recognized the Russian threat and
articulated it in such a clear, precise manner. His assessment remains valid even today. As
a countermeasure to the Russian threat, Radetzky was one of the earliest proponents of the
concept of the citizen in uniform as part of a free citizenry. Tragically, instead of this
political and military genius, a reactionary like Metternich ended up steering the course of
Europe.
Bismarck, contrary to popular belief, was not an unconditional friend of Russia. During
his day the German operational plans were directed against Russia, and not against France.
A Russian proverb says that one should watch people’s hands, not their mouths.
Seeckt, even years after his dismissal, declared in his clear, precise way, “Russia cannot
be defeated.” But clear-thinking soldiers were not the only ones who recognized and
grappled with the Russian problem. Joseph Victor von Scheffel in his 1851 poem “The
Trumpeter of Säkkingen: A Song from the Upper Rhine” wrote:
And whenever the last scion
Of the Germans on the Rhine-shore
Has been gathered to his fathers,
Then will others walk and muse there,
And in gentle foreign language
Murmur the sweet words: “I love thee!”
Do you know them? They have noses
Somewhat flattened out and ugly;
By the Ural and the Irtish,
Now their ancestors drink whisky,
But to them belongs the future.
Only the German Social Democrats were staunchly anti-Russian—not for reasons of
foreign political insight, but because of domestically motivated political reasons. They
wanted to topple the autocratic, tsarist system. What that would mean as a consequence
nobody knew for sure, but certainly not a socialist heaven.
The mass of German citizens saw Russia as the ally and good friend who during the
Seven-Years War and the Wars of Liberation and in a selfless alliance with Bismarck
faithfully stood by us. That we actually had to thank England for our successes then was
beyond the comprehension of the average German. After all, how important could a
maritime power be?
The Germans had only nebulous memories, based on a few direct contacts with
Russians. My parents’ old cook remembered hearing her grandmother call the Russians
bad people. And once in a while you could still hear that it was better to have the French
as an enemy than the Russians as friends. But as Scheffel’s tomcat Hiddigeigei from “The
Trumpeter of Säkkingen” was singing as early as 1857:
Harmless tribe! Your lyric madness
You’ll continue, while there yonder,
In the East, the clouds are gathering,
Soon to burst in tragic thunder.4
Russia in World War I
World War I brought about the total collapse of Russia. Popularly that was credited to the
superior German art of leadership, to which the stupid and uneducated Russians were
obviously not equal. And that is the way it always will be, very comfortable thinking.
Reflection was clearly discouraged. The reality, of course, was quite different. Clearly, the
Russian generals and soldiers were not equal to the German art of leadership and the
independent thinking of German soldiers. But the true reasons lay deeper.
In 1914 the Russian army had only one basic set of equipment, and as soon as that was
lost it could not be replaced. Russia was losing machine guns, guns, ammunition, and
rifles in unimaginable numbers and the Russian soldier had to fight without equipment
against a well-equipped adversary. Before the Murmansk rail line was completed, thirtyfour thousand rifles were transported every month from Murmansk to Saint Petersburg
laboriously on reindeer sleds. Often only the first wave of Russian infantry had rifles, and
the follow-on forces had to grab them from the dead.
Russian artillery was scarce. The conduct of nighttime artillery firing was punished at
times by court-martial as a waste of state property. The losses of the courageously
attacking Russian infantry ended in indescribable mayhem. There were no rifles for
replacements to train with. For months at a time the recruits were kept busy with stupid
exercises—whole days, for example, were spent practicing saluting. All that gave the
looming revolution a breeding ground that could not have been better. The fate of the
tsarist empire was sealed when the English failed at the Dardanelles to open the supply
lines to Russia. Russia was decisively defeated at the Dardanelles, not at Tannenberg.
These conditions never could have been mastered by a self-serving ruler like Tsar
Nicholas II. The most amiable weakling in Russian history sat on the tsarist throne,
dominated by fuzzy mysticism and the monk Grigori Rasputin. Objective decisions were
never made. A level of corruption unlike any other in history pervaded all areas of the
state. Personnel policies extended far beyond your normal cronyism. The tsar’s
Hofjägermeister [court hunt master], Rudolf von Stackelberg, once described Nicholas to
my father as malicious. It was not surprising, then, that such an edifice should collapse
when going up against the German Reich. What was surprising was that it even lasted
until 1916–1917. The courage of the Russian soldier could not change the final outcome.5
In Hitler’s Eyes
Hitler had recognized the threat that Russia and Bolshevism posed much more clearly than
his western adversaries. The conclusions he drew were influenced by his experiences as an
infantryman on the western front in World War I. His experience in that war formed him.
He was not able to let go of that experience, but he also was not able to move beyond it.
Hitler’s judgment of Russia, therefore, was that of a typical infantryman from the
western front of 1914–1918. In other words, the Russians were a dumb, stupid mass, badly
led, with corrupt leadership, and technologically inferior. At the first hard blow their
system would collapse. The Russian people, an earthen clod without head or feet and
never having governed themselves, would after the defeat accept German rule willingly.
Whatever Hitler read or heard to the contrary he was skeptical of and most often rejected.
This, in my analysis, was the major reason for the preemptive war against Moscow.
Hitler later said, “In Russia we faced a people and not a system.”
And to Guderian he also remarked, “If I had known that the numbers on Russian tank
production in your book were right, I would not have started the war.”6
There was a rumor prevalent in highly respectable Wehrmacht circles that the chief of
the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, reported to Hitler lower numbers on the Russian
arms production than the figures that had been developed by his department.7 I cannot
verify that rumor.
The fact remains that Hitler entered the war with inaccurate economic and political
requirements and without the personal experience of the wideness of the Russian spaces.
If fate had sent Hitler as an infantryman to the East during World War I, his decisions
might have been different.
And the Truth
In 1943 or 1944, when I was the commanding general of the XLVIII Panzer Corps, I was
together one day with other gentlemen of the army high command. After dinner the ladies
of the Russian theater came in to dance with us. They had all been checked out and were
fanatical anti-communists, we were assured. An intelligent, German-speaking, somewhat
older actress sat down next to me. After a short while as we were conversing she said: “I
am naturally a convinced communist. The Bolshevik revolution has liberated us women
from the slavery of the church and the husband. Now we are free human beings. We get
married for love and to whomever we want. That is the difference between us; you do not
marry for love but for financial and business reasons.”
I was rather shocked. But I did not betray the lady’s trust and kept her disclosures to
myself. When I was still in Tilsit, I had been able to convince the former German
ambassador to Moscow, Rudolf Nadolny, to give a talk to the officers. Hearing Nadolny
talk was not only living history, he was also an acknowledged expert on Russia and he had
headed the Eastern European Department of the Foreign Ministry at the end of World War
I. He described Russia to us just the way we later experienced it ourselves. As he warned
all of us then, they are a steadfast people.
During the conversation some members of the Slavic Institute of the local university
barged in saying that the ambassador did not know what he was talking about. They
assumed that he had just sat in his embassy, did not get out, and only heard what he
wanted to hear. According to them they had access to real sources at their institute; they
had conducted interviews with endless numbers of immigrants and refugees and returning
migrants; they knew what was going on. The truth, according to them, was exactly the
opposite of what Nadolny was saying. But since all refugees or returning migrants were
automatically suspected of Bolshevist tendencies, they naturally tended to draw a much
bleaker picture of the Russian conditions for their own protection.
The analysis of intelligence is probably the most complicated sphere of human action,
one that requires a limitless amount of experience, knowledge of human nature, languages,
geography, and character analysis—all skills that are more than rare. The Slavic institutes
in the universities had an ominous influence because Hitler listened to them, and these
institutes only presented what Hitler wanted to hear. Quidquid delirant reges plectuntur
Achivi, or “The soldier has to suffer for it.”8
In the High Command of the Army (OKH)9
The Sparkommissar10
After a lot of pulling and pushing back and forth I finally had to go to Berlin, where I was
confronted with a daunting series of tasks. The wear and tear on our motorized equipment
in Russia was immense and it could not be replaced. Our stocks of both fuel and rubber
would be exhausted in the fall. But Hitler wanted a highly motorized army in 1942. So
that meant conserving motor vehicles wherever possible to get us through the shortfall.
The shortage of rubber was solved by two blockade runners, and the shortage of fuel by
switching to synthetics. What remained was the need for motor vehicles.
When I reported to Berlin, I received the news that my oldest son had died a hero’s
death. He had been killed leading his platoon in a most exemplary manner, from the
front.11 Under such circumstances, the mountain of work and the responsibilities that
awaited me were quite welcome. I immediately selected knowledgeable assistants. The
first two were my highly accomplished regimental adjutants. I knew they understood the
troops and their needs without asking a lot of questions or consulting additional advisors.
In some cases we got officers from line units upon whose judgment we could rely. The
next thing I obtained was a directive signed by Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch,
the commander in chief of the army, giving me near-dictatorial powers for all departments
within the war ministry. Without having to negotiate with anybody, I could issue any
necessary order without much ado.
My new assignment required me to spend half my time at the ministry in Berlin and
half my time at army headquarters in Rastenburg. I commuted back and forth by plane and
by car. On one flight Colonel General Friedrich Fromm came with me to report to
Brauchitsch. The army wanted to reactivate the rocket development program at
Penemünde, which Hitler had cancelled two years previously. In my presence Brauchitsch
told Fromm, “Okay, let me have [the report]. I will present it to [Hitler] one more time. It
is frustrating. Instead of these high losses during bombing attacks on England that do not
do very much, we would have only had to push a button.”
By the conclusion of my assignment as Sparkommissar I had conserved more than one
hundred thousand motor vehicles with their associated personnel. In addition, we
inactivated numerous redundant units, including many reconnaissance units, engineer
platoons, etc. Unfortunately, those actions came too late. They should have been carried
out before the start of the Russia campaign. The motor vehicles that had been lost were
gone forever, and my efforts could only affect the standing-up and equipping of new units.
In the process I did get to know the army very well in all of its intricacies. After four
months on the job, at the beginning of November, my assignment ended.
General of Mobile Forces at OKH
At the beginning of November I was assigned as General of Mobile Forces at OKH.12
When I reported for the last time to General Fromm, who was also the commander of the
Reserve Army, I was happy to hear him tell me, “Normally the combat arms senior
officers of OKH have no place with the reserve forces; I do not want them there. With you
it is different, though. You can go there anytime and order them to do what you think is
right.”
I did not get much of a chance to do that, my work did not allow the time. Then I
reported to the commander in chief of the army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, who had
always been very supportive of me. I also reported to the chief of the general staff,
Colonel General Franz Halder, who told me verbatim: “I want you to prepare with a grand
vision for the war that our grandchildren will have to fight. In this war the victory of the
land battle cannot be taken from us anymore.” I was a little shocked.
Guderian
A few days later I was sitting on a plane to Orel to see Guderian, who was the commander
of the Second Panzer Army.13 I wanted to get oriented on the real situation and find out
where I should start my work. I knew that I would get the true, unvarnished picture from
Guderian.
He and I agreed completely on what had to be done and what the objectives should be.
We then drove to the front for three days. The situation was a little different from what I
had expected from Halder’s remarks. We passed the 296th Division, which was at full
strength and fully equipped, marching to the front lines. It was an impressive sight. On the
road to Tula we saw abandoned Russian tanks, including their new T-34. The T-34 was
completely impervious to our weapons, and it mounted a first-rate main gun. Nearby we
saw one of our own PzKpfw14 IIIs, which had been torn apart by just one Russian tank
round. The Russians could not handle their own marvelous equipment, and their tanks had
been abandoned because of technical problems.
Two divisions (from Frankfurt and Mainz) of III Corps had been destroyed. But a third
division from Würtemberg, even though it went through the same experience, came out
looking exactly as it had on the day it went in. A Russian battle group had been encircled
east of Stalinogorsk (now Novomoskovsk). The following night that unit, a Siberian
division, broke out of the encirclement. With their leaders up front in tanks, the
unorganized mass of troops followed like a herd. In the process, two battalions of our 25th
Motorized Infantry Division, which still had nine and seven rifle squads respectively, were
overrun. There were so many Russians that even the machine guns could not finish them
all off.
The Russian escape route was lined with their dead for kilometers. Our troops had
vanished in the human waves. But when we reached our positions our troops all looked
very good. Guderian walked from man to man, speaking with them informally. He made
quite an impression on them, the army commander out there on the front lines during their
hour of crisis. But I could not help noticing that the troops were at the limits of their
strength. As a result of their numerical weakness, they constantly ended up in the most
difficult crisis situations, which were then resolved by throwing in our best troops. But as
those troops were killed, the toughest core of our army that we could not do without
slowly but surely vanished. The Russians had left ninety-four guns and seventeen tanks in
the encirclement perimeter. During World War I they saved their materiel at the cost of
human lives. Now they did it the other way around. Was it a symptom or a coincidence?
The XXIV Motorized Corps was commanded by General of Panzer Troops Leo Geyr
von Schweppenburg, my old comrade from the 18th Cavalry Regiment. He spoke gravely
about the condition of his unit and asked me to report to higher headquarters accordingly.
The corps formed up that day (26 November) with three divisions in three columns near
Tula. With the three divisions equal in size to only three reinforced battalions, the
movement naturally ground to a halt. They spent the night in Yasnaya Polyana, Leo
Tolstoy’s estate. Everything was done to keep the place intact. One officer was detailed as
a guard. No billeting was allowed.
On 27 November I had my last meeting with Guderian in Orel. He believed he could
still take Tula, but that was the limit of what he could do. He also asked me to describe the
condition of the troops to higher headquarters. On the way back I stopped at Smolensk and
had dinner with the commander of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. It
was an interesting evening. After my return I spoke with General Buhle, who immediately
informed Halder of my observations. On 30 November I reported to Brauchitsch and gave
him a rather blunt assessment of the condition of the force. A sick, broken man sat in front
of me, but he assessed the situation much as I did. Hitler, meanwhile, was demanding
more and more attacks, because he believed that the last battalion thrown into the battle
would determine the outcome. Thus, the piecemeal dribbling would continue, not resulting
in anything. Brauchitsch, who normally was self-controlled, broke down, “Why don’t you
go and tell him yourself? We are finished.”
I was deeply shaken. Napoleon had tried to do something similar at Eylau (now
Bagrationovsk) in 1807, and the instrument broke in his hands. The only viable course of
action was to suspend the operation and transition to the defensive.
The Great Crisis
The great crisis that was looming during my visit with Guderian in Tula and Kashira broke
out in full force. The Russians attacked with everything they had. They had little artillery
and fewer tanks, but they had people, whoever they could muster without regard for their
ability to regenerate their army. Workers from shut-down industrial plants were formed
into battalions, prisoners into companies. We ended up in a number of very bad situations
because our personnel strength was completely down and our equipment was worn out.
We were beyond the possibility of victory and now it was just a matter of holding on.
On 19 December, I was called in by Brauchitsch. He had been fired. Hitler assumed
direct command of the army himself. The mood was gloomy. Halder spoke warmly to us
about Brauchitsch’s accomplishments. Then we went to see the field marshal. Brauchitsch
had aged and looked tired. He forbade any kind of speech, but he himself spoke clearly
and well. He said that his heart could not take the stress any longer and that Hitler had
now taken over personally as supreme commander. The army hopefully would now
receive everything it needed. Addressing Halder, Brauchitsch cordially thanked him.
It was touching. The end of a man, whose only mistake was that he could not deal with
Hitler. Brauchitsch was not to blame for the current crisis situation in the army. On the
contrary, he had always predicted it. And now a highly accomplished man would
disappear. Clearly recognizing the situation, he often had asked to be relieved. He knew
that there had to be trust between the highest level of the political and military leadership.
Hitler had always refused to accept. Now we were facing the consequences of an
unresolved personality conflict that had been intolerable for a long time.
Brauchitsch, who had been my commander in East Prussia, had always been especially
benevolent toward me. I owed him very much. Silently he shook hands with all of us one
more time as we looked into his clear eyes.
The Crisis Near Moscow
There was extremely heavy fighting. What was the situation in the front lines? Had a
catastrophe already occurred? Was it in the making? Would we be able to weather it?
Those were the questions that bothered all of us. Officers of OKH were ordered to the
front lines, to give moral support. They were given a wide range of authority to stop any
rearward movement. Hitler had forbidden any kind of retrograde action, and that decision
was to be made clear. I was sent to the Third and Fourth Panzer Armies near Moscow.
Halder gave me an initial orientation. He described the situation in a classical manner. The
overriding objective, which was total victory and the complete destruction of the Russian
Army, had failed. Now the Russians were on the offensive. Considering the conditions of
the Russian winter, any withdrawal on our part would result in a catastrophe of
Napoleonic dimensions. Halder now seemed completely rejuvenated. He spoke to me
about the feu sacré [sacred fire] of the combat commander that one now had to exhibit.
By way of Vilnius, I arrived on 23 December in Smolensk at army group headquarters.
Bock was replaced by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. Bock had wanted to withdraw
back across the Desna River under pressure from the Russian counterattack. But the onset
of the Siberian winter would have meant the dissolution of the army group. For a few days
destruction and defeat loomed over Germany.
Kluge made a very energetic and clear impression. On 24 December, I arrived in
Gzhatsk [now Gagarin after Yuri Gagarin] at Colonel General Erich Hoepner’s Fourth
Panzer Army. The army was still standing, but how? During the retreat from Moscow
masses of materiel had been left behind because of the lack of fuel. The troops were
totally spent. The individual divisions were mere shadows of their former selves. The
160th Division, for example, had eighty riflemen left. Everything was drowning in snow.
Communications were miserable. Lateral movements were impossible.
The staff, officers, and enlisted celebrated Christmas together. Hoepner spoke firmly,
sincerely, and with confidence. He was a powerful leader. I sat next to him. He said that
the hardest challenge of leadership came in situations where one had to muster all his
personal powers to appear upbeat and confident in order to give his subordinates strength.
The withdrawal from Moscow had not been easy. Unsurprisingly, there had been
incidents of disintegration at certain points. Although the troops had given their best, they
did not accomplish their mission and now they had to go back. The following day I went
on to the VII Army Corps, where Hans Krebs, an old member of the Goslar Jägers, was
the chief of staff. I could expect to receive thorough overviews and analysis from him.
Slowly I drove through the Russian winter landscape, past the 1812 battlefields of
Borodino. I could still see the heaps of earth from the Russian positions. There was
sunshine but no wind in the -5 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit weather. The smoke from the
villages rose straight up in long, solid columns, high into the sky. It was a picture that
could have been inspirational, were it not for our desperate situation and the Napoleonic
memories. Thoughts of the dutiful, courageous German soldier weighed heavily on us.
I immediately went to the forward lines with Krebs. The troops looked pretty worn out,
but were still in good spirits. With some imagination I could recognize the beginnings of
dug-in positions. Nobody wanted to retreat. They had experienced the consequences
themselves. They felt vastly superior to the Russians. But a few troops here and there can
get pretty lonely, and the Russians always arrived with a hugely superior force. What we
needed mostly was people, especially officers and NCOs, along with better antitank
weapons.
The reaction to Hitler taking direct command was having a surprising effect.
“Everything will be good, now that the Führer has taken over,” could be heard over and
over again. Even Krebs commented, “I would have never thought that even today this
could have such an influence.”
On the evening of 26 December I was back in Gzhatsk with Hoepner. We sat together
for a long time in the evening. Hoepner considered the armored thrust toward Moscow to
be unfeasible—bad terrain, too weak a force. He complained heavily about the senior
leadership. At the army group level Field Marshal von Bock did not issues orders, only
recommendations. Consequently Field Marshal von Kluge at Fourth Army remained
aloof. The enemy forces, meanwhile, were concentrating on the Fourth Panzer Army. So
far, Bock had done nothing to plug the hole along the Tula–Kaluga line. He was incapable
of asserting himself against Guderian, who did what he wanted. During this conversation
we received the news about Guderian’s relief. It hit us all very hard. He was made the
scapegoat for the disaster on the southern flank of the Fourth Army.
On 27 December I made a trip to the XLVI Army Corps. General Heinrich von
Vietinghoff appeared firm and in good spirits. As long as he had the 5th Panzer Division
and the Waffen-SS Division “Das Reich”15 he would be able to support the units on his
flanks. The 5th Panzer Division had just returned from home leave, fully equipped and
refurbished.
On the 29th I was back with Kluge and had dinner with him. Then I met with Hitler’s
senior adjutant, Lieutenant General Rudolf Schmundt, and discussed with him the results
of my multiple visits to the front. He said to me, “We must go see the Führer immediately.
He needs to hear this.”
Guderian’s Farewell
Guderian’s relief hit everybody very hard, especially the Panzer force. Kluge talked to me
about it for a long time. He had been forced to take that action because Guderian had not
been completely honest with him. Guderian had assured Kluge that he would hold a
certain line, even though the troops of his 4th Panzer Division were already falling back
from that position. Kluge cited two other similar instances in Guderian’s previous conduct
of the operation when he supposedly had not played with open cards.
I also blame Bock to a certain extent. As army group commander he had not issued any
orders, and as a consequence Kluge’s Fourth Army did not attack Moscow. Bock also did
nothing to close the gap that had developed between Tula and Kaluga as a result of Kluge
stopping his movement. Nor had Kluge done anything decisive; he had ordered only a few
half-hearted actions. And Guderian himself? I made the following notes in my journal
during my last visit with him: “Psychologically, Guderian leads masterfully, however, he
increasingly depends on the moods and weaknesses of his troops in making his decisions.
The troops like this situation. They feel understood. This is not, however, conducive to the
tough decisions that a field commander who demands the most must make.”
I pushed these thoughts aside, because Guderian indeed had always accomplished what
he intended to accomplish with his masterful manner of human leadership. But Hitler
judged similarly. On 20 December he had told Guderian, “You are too close to the events.
You let yourself be affected too much by the suffering of your soldiers. You have too
much compassion for the soldiers. You need to distance yourself more.”
Guderian was, as I judged him, a good and honorable man. The inner core of his
personality was sensitive and empathetic. But as he knew that this could bring danger, he
often forced himself, driven by his hot temper, his love and sense of duty for Germany, to
be hard and ruthlessly open, appearing unstoppable. Military and moral courage were
developed in Guderian with equal intensity. Naturally, he had made a lot of enemies, who
weighed in against him when the crunch came.
Shortly before my visit with Guderian in Orel he had been discussing with OKW the
withdrawal of some units for reconstitution in Germany. When I was in Orel everybody’s
thinking centered on that. Individual units had already been pulled out for transport back
and Guderian spoke openly with the troops about it. On 25 November he spoke to the two
battalions of the 25th Motorized Infantry Division, which had borne the brunt of the
Russian breakthrough. The news of the pending withdrawal spread like wildfire. How that
happened remains a mystery.16
Poor personnel policy was another major factor that made this bad situation worse. The
Personnel Branch knew that Guderian did not easily fit in. It also knew that the
relationship between Guderian and Kluge had not been good for many years, which made
it impossible for these two good soldiers to work together. Placing them in such a position
could only lead to a disastrous clash. That crisis occurred near Orel, to the cost of the
common soldier. These two able soldiers would have served better elsewhere, where they
could not have clashed with each other.
Guderian told me that Kluge once challenged him to a duel, but Hitler had prohibited it.
Guderian never forgave Kluge for his relief from command. At a meeting a few years later
in the Führer’s headquarters Kluge stepped up to Guderian and instinctively offered his
hand, as he always did to everyone. Guderian saluted and ignored the offered hand.
Instead of silently dismissing the gesture, Kluge asked, “Why don’t you shake my hand?”
Guderian responded, “I salute the uniform, not the person.”
Briefing Hitler
On 30 December I was back in Rastenburg and the following day I briefed Hitler. It took
more than two hours, during which time Hitler hardly spoke. He only occasionally asked a
question. I pleaded with Hitler not to withdraw under any circumstances. Operations were
completely impossible in the snow that was two meters deep, and in the -58 degree
Fahrenheit weather river crossings and the building of positions were impossible
anywhere. This was a crisis that could not be solved operationally. Front lines were being
held wherever we could manage to get just one tank and twenty men to one decisive point
after days and days of trying. The demand to hold under such conditions might sound
brutal, but in reality it was the greatest clemency. I was further able to give my assessment
to Hitler about the Russian tactical developments of missile launchers, assault artillery,
tanks, and the mass commitments of poorly trained infantry. I also expressed my concerns
about tank production, stressing the crucial need for more.
I gave him the number of tanks that were delivered to the troops in December. Hitler
said, “You are wrong, it was…” and he gave twice the number. Taking the plunge I
replied, “My number is right. Your numbers have both the December and January
production combined.”
OKW chief Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, red faced and with his moustache quivering,
interjected, “My Führer, now this is a grave accusation against me… .” Hitler made an
interrupting gesture and Keitel fell silent. Later, Keitel did not throw it up to me, which I
thought was quite decent of him.
I also pushed for the immediate fielding of shaped charge rounds, which were
especially effective against armor. They were supposed to be the great surprise for 1942. I
had a good rapport with Hitler and I hoped to have some influence on the decisive
question of tank production. I apparently got Hitler’s attention, because he immediately
summoned Minister for Armaments Fritz Todt. After briefing Hitler I reported to the army
chief of staff, Halder, who I found to be very upbeat and confident.
In the evening I met with General Buhle, the chief of the Organizational Directorate.
He had been transferred to OKW as the chief of army affairs. I noted in my journal,
“Hopefully, Buhle will now assert himself so that the Army gets what it needs. It is high
time.”
At the beginning of the New Year, Buhle, General Friedrich Paulus, and I sat over a
map and brooded about an order that was supposed to align operations and the
reequipping of the Panzer divisions.
Reflections on the Battle for Moscow
Much has been written about the battle for Moscow, and I do not want to repeat it.
Deliberations about whether various operational decisions could have led to success may
be rather interesting, but they also are a sure sign that the force had been expended and the
culminating point17 of victory had been surpassed. The indicators of a healthy, promising
operation are the ability of the available, participating forces to resolve tactical and
operational errors and personnel glitches. Such errors are then not apparent and can be
ignored, because they have no negative consequences. Such had been the case in all of our
previous campaigns in Poland, France, and the Balkans. Thus, the question is not what
could have been done differently operationally, but what we could have done to infuse
new forces to avoid exceeding the culminating point.
I cannot judge whether or not effective personnel actions could have been taken in front
of Moscow. Plenty of personnel were available as the crisis unfolded. The materiel factor
was more important. Following the campaign in France, Hitler had encouraged equipping
the PzKpfw III with the long-barrel 50 mm main gun rather than the short-barrel 35 mm
gun, and the PzKpfw IV with the long-barrel rather than the short-barrel 75 mm gun. I
remember listening in on a conversation between General von Schell and Colonel General
Fromm when they decided contrary to clear guidance to use the short-barrel guns, because
it was more difficult to move through forests with the longer guns. They believed that the
tube of the main gun should never extend beyond the edge of the tank’s hull. The
consequence was that our tank guns at Moscow could not penetrate the Russian armor.18
When we refitted our Panzers with the longer-barrel guns during the winter of 1941–1942,
the Russian tank superiority ended. That by itself might have produced different results at
Moscow.
Years earlier, during a discussion about tank issues I had with then-Colonel von Schell,
I told him that the material losses of tanks had been high in the last war, but tank crew
personnel losses had been minimal. We would need six thousand tanks for an operation
that would be used up after a certain amount of time. But the majority of the tank crews
would still be available. If we had six thousand additional tanks, we could give them to
those crews and the Panzer divisions would be able to maintain their original strength and
combat effectiveness. The cycle could even be repeated. What we needed to abandon was
our practice of fragmented and low-rate production. We needed more factories. We had
built a tank army without the necessary tank production. Schell thought that three times
six thousand tanks was impossible, and besides, it was too late now. We should have
started much earlier. I did not have the authority then, but in my mind I postponed the
issue to a later point when I would have more influence over the process.
On my trips to the front I came across ad hoc units that had been thrown together with
tank crews which had lost their tanks. Not trained for static warfare in trenches, they
suffered heavy losses in their black uniforms in the white snow. Later, these old tank
crewmen were desperately needed.19
We did not recognize the incredible possibilities for reconstitution in a modern tank
army and we never resolved the dilemma of a tank army without adequate tank
production. We lost the war because of this. At Moscow one to two thousand new tanks
could have produced different results. In the whole history of warfare there is no
generalship, no General Staff at the operational level that was the equal of the Germans in
World War II. Unfortunately, that resulted in our attempts to solve all our problems on the
operational level, even when there was no operational solution. That was the case in front
of Moscow.
Twice I had tried to get from the headquarters of the Fourth Panzer Army to reach the
subordinated corps headquarters. I only managed to do it on the third try. I then attempted
to get from the Fourth to the adjacent Third Panzer Army, but had to give that up
altogether. Someone once commented to me, “You folks at OKH must believe that
summer has broken out in front of Moscow.” At army group headquarters I listened in to a
telephone call during which Field Marshal von Kluge tried unsuccessfully to get a general
officer moved to a field army headquarters as the new commanding general. At that point I
knew that operational decisions had absolutely no value anymore. The decision over a
battle won or lost had moved from the operational level, beyond the tactical level, down to
the simple question of whether one tank, one antitank gun, or twenty soldiers could be
moved to a threatened position.
The decision to hold at any price and not give up an inch was obvious, given the
situation. As tempting as frontline adjustments appeared on paper, the reality was that
equipment, rations, and often the wounded were lost in the process. The conserving of
significant forces rarely resulted, because the shortening of the front line also gave the
enemy an advantage. Once the new position was established, the old game started all over,
and looking toward the rear and toward another shortening of the front line started anew.
In the process, the morale of the troops that had just lived through a horrible withdrawal
would deteriorate even more. Hitler recognized this, but from that point on he was very
skeptical of any operational actions. In the long run, that was very much to our detriment.
But at that point in time and in that situation, I was convinced that there was no other
solution but to hold at all costs. Anything else would have resulted in death and
destruction.
Several accomplished generals, particularly Guderian and Hoepner, became victims of
this solution. But the guilt ran deeper. Brauchitsch had not demanded unconditional
obedience from the generals. Schlieffen had demanded a turning movement by the entire
German Army that was supposed to be executed just as if it were done by a battalion. He
had recognized that in the endless battle front of modern mass armies, independent
operational decisions by army-level commanders were rare and that they could jeopardize
the whole. Brauchitsch, however, had allowed too much leeway. Hitler, in contrast,
believed that he had to reestablish unquestioning obedience. At that time there was a lot of
support for that point of view.
Wars and sometimes even battles are won or lost politically. Moscow had been such a
battle. The fight against Russia required the concentration of all forces. Hitler neglected to
involve Japan or even to keep the Japanese updated. Instead, Japan pursued its own path in
the Pacific. There would be time for that after the defeat of Russia. The fact that we did
not involve Japan in the Far East against the Soviets allowed the Soviets to use their
easternmost forces against us at Moscow at the decisive moment. Hitler’s failure to
combine the two nations against Russia ultimately led to their joint defeat in World War II.
It was similar to World War I when the German chief of staff General Erich von
Falkenhayn attacked the French at Verdun in 1916, while the Austrian chief of Staff,
General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, attacked Italy. The irony is that Hitler the
politician lost the Battle of Moscow, while as a military leader he saved the German Army
temporarily.
The Conclusion of the Winter Battle
The Winter Battle was slowly ebbing away. It was interesting to see how the sudden
beginning of the winter with its incredible masses of snow from one day to the next
changed the art of war from a highly modern, equipment-driven process to a much more
primitive form. Every man with one rifle, two hundred rounds of ammunition, one
landmine under his arm, rations for four days, no artillery, and only a few mortars was the
equipment of the Russian shock armies. With that they were superior in winter fighting to
our well-equipped but immobile divisions. That was exactly how fifteen hundred Finnish
snowshoe-mounted troops stopped and decimated a Russian invasion army. During World
War I the Finns had used the same primitive methods to destroy a Russian division.
But the Russian leadership was not able to manage their local successes at the
operational level, or to mass their forces to destroy our Army Group Center. Their shock
armies petered out in the endlessness of the eastern steppes, where they eventually came to
a halt somewhere and then started to live off the land. And thus the battle was decided.
Such tactics could only produce success if the Russian shock armies were firmly directed
toward a single objective, and if the Germans cooperated by withdrawing, losing all of
their equipment, and letting panic break down their unit cohesion. But we stood firm
wherever we were, and the Soviet shock armies dissolved. The Russian tactics failed.
By the time winter was over both opposing forces in many sectors were closely
entangled and exhausted, directly opposite each other. By holding on, by using
strongpoints, and by launching immediate counterattacks into the Russian masses we had
mastered the situation. Hitler had been right in this case. Would he also be right later on?
Typically, he did not change his methods that were successful initially, but which later
turned out to be disastrous under different circumstances.
“You should change your tactics every ten years,” said Napoleon. “Otherwise the
enemy will figure them out.” But in our times things moved much faster. What had been
right yesterday was wrong today and led to ruin. Thus, Hitler failed to understand the
uniqueness of the Winter Battle. My journal entry of 15 January indicates the lack of
influence that Hitler’s thinking had on me at the time:
“Undoubtedly it was correct to try to finish off the Russians in pursuit. The same
people who criticize this course of action now would have likewise criticized halting in
the fall and constructing winter positions. They would have urged pursuit. But this was not
the decisive mistake. The decisive mistake was not to push reserve forces forward
immediately, reserve crews, tanks, etc., in order to maintain the momentum of the attack.
When it was too late, the necessary forces were suddenly available. Who bears the blame
for such negligence? Brauchitsch did not, without a doubt. It was Hitler’s fault. He so
easily took the second step before the first one, and then neglected the necessary follow-on
action. This is how we had prepared to conduct all kinds of operations, the war against
England,20 the offensive in the Caucasus, war in the Middle East. Instead of completing
one thing and taking it to the end, we already moved on to the next. So we exceeded our
culminating point.”
Halder once asked me, “Are you a humanist?”
I acknowledged that I was.
“Do you know what ‘hubris’ means? That is our problem.”
People and Soldiers
Quidquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi.21 That verse from Virgil’s Aeneid has stuck
with me all of my life. An examination of the events of the winter of 1941–1942,
therefore, would be incomplete without also remembering all the people involved, the
German and Russian soldiers and the civilian populace. As I saw the situation at the
time…
25 December, near Moscow: “The population is eager and works as they should. They
have learned to obey. In some regions there is already famine. Quietly and apathetically
the situation is accepted. When asked in the fall, ‘Why don’t you work your fields?’ They
answered, ‘It makes no sense; our food will only last until April anyway. We will not live
to see the next harvest. Now that your soldiers eat our stored food with us, it will only last
until February.’ ”
Between 1919 and 1929 it was the same. Then 40 percent died of hunger, now it would
be 60 percent. Numbly the people acquiesced to their inevitable fate. Their indifference
toward fate and death was beyond conception. The younger generation was communist,
the older ones were completely apathetic.
A regimental comrade, Radowitz, told me on 2 February that some of our troops who
had remained back in Rostov during our withdrawal had been hidden by the local citizens
from the Bolshevists and finally reached German lines in disguises.
All comforts—any kind of pleasure—had been abandoned by the Russians for their
arms build-up. But even at this lowest of standards the people still had the minimum and
were well fed. Here and there one even saw a better dressed woman. There was absolutely
no décor in the living areas. The art was gigantic kitsch. Everywhere there were the same
stucco statues of Lenin and Stalin. The architecture was a poor imitation of American
styles. Russian family life, however, was completely different from what we had
imagined. There was no prostitution. Discipline and morality within the family were
highly valued.
On the German front line the Hannoverian 73rd and 74th Regiments, which had a
combined strength of only three thousand to four thousand, overran much larger enemy
forces. They brought in one thousand prisoners and counted more than five thousand
enemy killed.
Wachtmeister22 Kuhfall, a forward observer from the 7th Battery, 268th Artillery
Regiment, was shot through the lung but remained in position until an officer replaced
him. When he heard at the aid station that this officer had been killed, he immediately
went forward and, despite his severe wound, started directing fires again.
One NCO of the 384th Infantry Regiment self-described his condition as healthy and
fully combat ready, even though he had twenty-eight festering boils from lice.
One soldier in the 364th Infantry Regiment was standing guard, writhing with pain
from joint rheumatism. When asked about it, he stated that he had had three days of rest
coming, but because there were so few of them he just had to go back on duty.
As one of my officers reported to me after a visit to the front lines, one private in the
432nd Infantry Regiment was standing guard with his festering feet wrapped in rags
because they were so swollen they could not fit into his boots. Otherwise he appeared
crisp and upright. He said, “We are only five men left in the squad. If I fall out, the others
have to stand guard even more frequently.”
This active German heroism was countered by a more passive Russian heroism that,
nevertheless, had to be valued at the same level. To reinforce the partisans and their
forward positions the Russians dropped soldiers at a height of ten to fifteen meters from
low-flying, old, slow airplanes without parachutes into the deep snow: 15 percent died, 30
percent were injured, and only 55 percent remained fit for action. There also were frequent
reports of cannibalism among separated and encircled Russian units, but I personally
never saw evidence of such.
My staff advisor for armored trains, Lieutenant Colonel von Olschewski, reported from
the rear: “Everybody has caught the Russian illness of indifference, ‘Nichevo!’ The
insightful ones say that this is caused by the monotonous steppes.” A senior German
railroad official refused to transport wounded soldiers in his official car that was running
well-heated, right behind the locomotive. When Olschewski attempted to intervene, the
soldiers declared, “If the man has to be forced to do the right thing, just forget it. We are
better than that.”
My Functions as General of Mobile Forces23 at OKH
Because of my trips to the front, I knew the situation and I knew what had to be done. The
answer was tanks, tanks, and more tanks. Since I knew the inner workings of the ministry,
where the powers-that-be mostly neutralized each other, I tried to put some leverage where
I knew I would get some results, directly with Hitler. I made a good start at the end of
December and from then on I never hesitated to take that route. Hitler’s senior adjutant,
Schmundt, supported me continually. I just had to call and give him an outline of my main
points, and I was sure of being able to see Hitler within eight to ten days. It obviously was
essential to present only the real bottom-line issues to him, and only concentrate on my
own area of responsibility.
I believe that with this process I was successful in steering Hitler again and again
toward the central problem of tank production, and that it kept his interest in the issue
alive. All other issues became secondary. It was also important that Colonel General
Fromm, who was for all intents and purposes the minister of war in Berlin, was kept
abreast of things and never had the feeling of being cut out. He always trusted me
completely. He had too much insight as a soldier and was much too generous to interfere
because of any interdepartmental jealousies.
The next area that I concentrated my energy on was the problem of the NCOs. Much
more than in earlier days, the NCO was the heart and the foundation at the small unit
level. I initiated an NCO academy for the mobile forces at the Rembertow maneuver
training area near Warsaw. For the commandant and the instructors I drew from the
officers from my old 1st Bicycle Battalion. I had trained them in peacetime when I was
their commander, and they knew exactly what I expected. But it was difficult to sell this
initiative. Colonel General Halder, for one, wanted to authorize only a two-week course.
Finally he agreed to three months, which I then quietly extended into a six-months course
as I originally had requested. A modern NCO cannot be trained in less time than that.24
I also wanted to start a battalion commander’s course at Versailles, similar to the one
conducted by Tank Brigade West. Considering Warsaw and Paris, I was drawn to the idea
of bringing the course participants from the East into a culturally somewhat more
sophisticated atmosphere. The preparations for the school had been completed in Paris by
the time I left to assume command of a division. And, of course, there were regulations to
edit and publish, which were useful for disseminating lessons learned.
In the course of all these actions I traveled to both Warsaw and Paris. What I saw there
was not pretty. I could never quite understand why supply and logistics activities
supposedly only functioned among the pleasures of the big city. The speed and
effectiveness of the logistics system was not at all optimal in such environments. Much
got lost en route and never arrived where it was needed, with the troops.
My assistants were all competent, hand-picked officers. My adjutant was Hans-Georg
Lueder,25 who once stood up to me openly and courageously when I was heading in the
wrong direction. Later, when I was an army commander, I picked him for my adjutant
again. I never had much use for yes-men. My chief of staff, Colonel Krahmer, and I went
far back together. One day he reported to me very formally and stated that he was not a
National Socialist. All I could tell him was that I did not care about that. Because of the
sense of duty we both shared as officers, it was completely irrelevant. And that was that.
Another of my officers who stood out was my staff advisor for cavalry issues,
Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth von Pannwitz, who later became the commanding general of
the 1st Cossack Division.26 He was extremely knowledgeable about the peoples of the
East and expanded my horizons on this topic immensely. I had chosen him because during
peacetime in East Prussia he had already come to my attention for his sincerity and the
soundness of his opinions. He was an officer who distinguished himself by his deep love
and understanding of the simple frontline soldier and the peoples of the East. When
necessary, however, he was capable of indomitable harshness. He spoke most of the Slavic
languages fluently. I gave him full rein to develop his plans to recruit the Cossacks.
Later near Stalingrad, Pannwitz came through my divisional headquarters on his way to
meet Hitler to receive the Oak Leaves to his Iron Cross Knight’s Cross. He asked me
whether he should give Hitler his opinion about the peoples of the East. I told him, “Hitler
talks interestingly and fascinatingly. Just interrupt him in the middle of a sentence and tell
him, ‘My Führer, I have to tell you something… ,’ and then just take off without timidity.
He listens to people that come from where the action is, who speak from experience, and
who are personally courageous.”
The conversation went as expected. Pannwitz did just as I advised him, and Hitler
listened. Pannwitz had an equally developed sense of moral courage, as well as military
courage. He was totally blunt and was not afraid to say that our policy toward the East was
wrong and that there were no subhumans in the East. Afterward Pannwitz became the
commander of the Cossack brigade that was being formed, which he later developed into a
Cossack division, and then a Cossack corps.27 It was the only unit of Eastern Europeans
that completely lived up to our expectations. At the end of the war Pannwitz refused to
abandon his Cossacks. He voluntarily transferred with them from British detention to
Russia and certain death, of which he was completely aware.28
Pannwitz frequently went back to Hitler and always pushed through whatever he
needed. An officer in the Organizational Directorate later told me that Pannwitz would
never leave until he had everything accomplished he had set out to do. Even at that he was
unique. After his first talk with Hitler there was a noticeable change in attitude toward the
peoples of the East, although Pannwitz alone was not the cause. The time was right and
the situation was heating up for us, but by then it was far too late.
Nobody at OKH was happy with Hitler taking direct command of the army. As the
head of state he was overtaxed, and he had stepped from his high level of leadership down
to a level where he lacked the necessary knowledge and skill. The war did not allow him
the time he needed to become an expert. As a temporary solution Hitler’s assumption of
command had been justifiable and even necessary; but as a permanent solution it was
wrong.
During one of many evenings I spent with Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg we
discussed these matters. In the course of one conversation he suddenly said to me,
“Colonel, I have a peculiar solution here. Himmler should be made commander in chief of
the army. Then he could not just put all of his efforts into the SS, but would have to take
care of the army as well.”
That conversation shows how little we were able to look really deep inside the
characters and the issues of that time. Although our discussion at the time was little more
than a dinner table conversation, Stauffenberg typically loved to throw such thoughts
unexpectedly into a conversation in order to clarify his own thoughts in the process of the
discussion that would instantly follow.29
14
1942
Between Smolensk and Stalingrad
Preparation—The Via Sacra1
The build-up of a powerful mechanized army for 1942 was more than difficult. Endless
amounts of materiel and countless tanks, trucks, and weapons had been left behind during
the withdrawal from Moscow. I estimated the loss equal to at least one or two armies
worth of equipment. This indicates what would have happened to us if the withdrawal had
not been brutally halted. A further foul-up was the so-called Via Sacra.
On 16 October a close associate of mine, Major General Alfred Baentsch, earlier the
chief quartermaster and now commander of the 82nd Division, told me about it. In
December 1941 Baentsch had witnessed the following conversation between Hitler and
Major General Adolf von Schell, the plenipotentiary for military automotive engineering.
Hitler: “Do you have 10,000 trucks?
Schell: “Yes.”
Hitler: “Can I have them in Warsaw by December 22nd?”
Schell (without thinking): “Yes.”
The ten thousand trucks were mostly pulled out of France, loaded with urgently needed
equipment, and organized into companies transporting 250 tons each. They were then
driven across Germany by inexperienced drivers, mostly Hitler Youths, only to keep the
deadline. But only wrecks arrived in Warsaw. The companies that had carried 250 tons
each were then reorganized into companies carrying 60 tons. What actually reached the
front lines was junk. The ten thousand trucks had been wasted.
It is interesting to note that Hitler did not draw any consequences from this experience,
just as he never initiated any actions against those directorates that had not followed his
orders concerning the installation of the long guns into the tanks.
A case similar to the trucks had happened with some tanks. Sixty desperately needed
tanks, an entire month’s production at the time, had been driven by untrained personnel,
some of whom were Hitler Youths, with their brakes locked from the off-loading site at a
railhead to the front lines. They ended up as junk along the roads. Of course, the winter
was blamed for that. I then personally tested frost-proof loading techniques. Only slowly
did we realize that the winter conditions could not be blamed for what happened to the
tanks.
Under such circumstances the vehicle upgrades that I had ordered at the time when I
was the “Agent of Frugality” proved very helpful now.
It was particularly difficult to extract the tank divisions from the sector of Army Group
Center. In order to block the withdrawals, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge dissolved all
the order of battle organizational structures. Certainly such had happened before under the
pressure of the moment. But now it turned out to be a marvelous instrument to resist the
extraction of every tank unit. A supreme commander of the German Army in the proper
sense did not exist anymore, and for different reasons not all the details could be presented
to Hitler. Colonel General Franz Halder2 had only limited command authority and
certainly not the necessary overall authority. Much disagreeable and often sternly written
correspondence went back and forth and much precious time was lost. That—after all that
—everything still went off on time seemed like a miracle.
Hitler demanded the establishment of two new tank divisions at home. The ministry
declared that was impossible. When I met with Colonel General Friedrich Fromm3 I
suggested to him that the two divisions could be built around the two tank regiments of
Panzer Brigade West. The infantry regiments could be formed from individual companies
of the Army in the West (Westheer),4 consisting of personnel from selected young age
groups that were available in the West. They then could be replaced in the West by
recruits. Artillery units could be made up of older soldiers from the West and the same
with engineers. Whatever was still missing would have to be acquired from various
sources.
Thus, the 22nd and 23rd Panzer Divisions were established. I had made it a rule not to
interfere with personnel issues. There were always more important problems to resolve.
As I later had to admit, that was an unfortunate decision. Such units, especially as they
were formed using a lot of tricks, would have required only the best divisional, regimental,
and battalion commanders, who through the power of their personalities could overcome
any adversity. That factor had been ignored by the Army Personnel Department. Here I
should have intervened and I feel partly responsible for the misfortune that fell to the 22nd
Panzer Division in the Crimea.
There the unit had been designated to attack across the narrows near Feodosiya in the
direction of Kerch. The 22nd Panzer Division had arrived piecemeal and the leaders did
not know their troops. The division was practically thrown into the battle piece by piece,
directly from the railhead and formed up only while it was being committed to action.
That process, unfortunately, was not uncommon and always ended in disaster. The
divisional commander wanted to wait, but he was put under huge pressure by the overall
commanding general: “If you do not attack today, we lose the Crimea tomorrow.”
“I will attack then,” responded the divisional commander. But instead of attacking
through an existing bridgehead across one part of the marshy zone, the division was lined
up across the whole marsh and then got bogged down and suffered heavy losses.5
I was sent there to evaluate the situation and was deeply moved by what I saw and
heard. I talked to almost all of the tank commanders and officers. Even though many of
them had made every possible tactical blunder, a large part of the blame lay with the
inadequate personnel situation. An experienced, tough divisional commander would have
found means and ways to postpone the attack until the division was completely assembled
and probably would have attacked in a different manner. With a “Pater, peccavi”6 from
me, nothing could be changed either.
I got to see very little of the Crimea. I turned down an excursion to Bakhchisaray to the
old architecturally interesting residence of the khan of the Crimean Tatars. The purpose of
the trip was not really appropriate, and I also purposely did not want to use up any more
gas, which was hard to come by.
The 22nd Panzer Division later successfully participated in capturing Kirzhach and was
then committed in the first counterattack at Stalingrad as part of the XLVIII Panzer Corps,
where it suffered heavy losses and was disbanded. The disbanding of the 22nd, or rather
its merging with the 23rd Panzer Division, was necessary because it was logistically
impossible to reconstitute both divisions. It was better to have one complete division than
two rumps. All other options would have been wrong.
The Outlook for 1942
On 3 March I noted in my journal: “An interesting question is what are the Russians
capable of doing in the spring? This is the decisive question of the war. Having been
underrated up to this point, they are now overrated. The most unfavorable intelligence for
us indicated that they will add sixty new divisions and thirty-five tank brigades. That
seems exaggerated. For the time being they have nothing with which to exploit their initial
successes. What they are throwing into the fight is old people and whatever else they can
muster—Moscow policemen, for example. I believe that they too are stretched very thin
and since the beginning of the year they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. In other
words, they are running out of options as well. One thing is clear: if we can grasp the
initiative again, they will be finished.”
Map 4. The German Attack into Southern Russia, Summer 1942. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
Those comments show how one can be totally off in one’s analysis. Enemy estimates
are some of the hardest things to do.7 There is no such thing as a wrong estimate, and no
blame can be attached. One of our most capable and energetic intelligence officers, who
had been a Fähnrich8 in my former squadron and who I was friends with, came up with
the same conclusion: “The Russians are finished.” He was a Baltic German and spoke
Russian as fluently as German, but he despised the Russians deeply and did not think them
capable of anything.
For the intelligence service the same is true now as what Goethe said about the writing
of history: “One must start with the positive and then if one in the course of the work gets
to the negative, one is right there. If one starts out with the negative, one remains there.”
That was the failure of this outstanding officer. The Personnel Department had not
accounted for this and had been lulled by the exemplary traits of this gentleman. In all
other areas his achievements would have been first rate.
Our Allies
Our allies played a major role in our plans. On 4 January Colonel General Friedrich
Paulus9 had hoped to bring another forty divisions forward along with the Finnish units.
We had, after all, managed to get almost all of Europe involved in the fight against
Bolshevism. But the main problem was that the allied units, unfortunately, were of
differing quality, and we were not able to give them modern equipment.
The best were the Finns, then the Croats, the Flemish, the Walloons, and the Dutch—
the latter organized in the 5th SS Panzer Division “Viking.” The Slovaks, Italians, and
Romanians were adequate, if they were not burdened with missions too difficult for them.
The allies who least met our expectations were the Hungarians. My disparaging verdict
from World War I and my assignment to the Hungarian Army were shared by the
assessment of General of Infantry Kurt von Tippelskirch, the General Staff’s former chief
of the foreign armies section. A certain amount of blame also goes to Hungarian regent
Miklós Horthy and his unclear policies. In 1945 a Hungarian division commander under
my command told me that he had a strict order from Horthy to subordinate all other
missions to the only important one, to bring the division back to Hungary in one piece.
One cannot conduct a war with that kind of thinking. Hungary’s curse was the
“Hungarian globe”—in other words, looking at Hungary as the center of the world. All
others were expected to conform to Hungary’s decisions. I credit the good attitude of the
Slovaks to the politically unambiguous attitude of their leader, Jozef Tiso, who in 1945
told me, “A small country like Slovakia cannot conduct its own foreign policy. It all
depends on making a clear decision and then sticking with it.”
During the withdrawal of the Hungarian mobile corps at the beginning of the winter of
1941–1942 the Hungarian officers were disgusted. They felt that it was a stain on the
reputation of Hungary to leave the Germans alone during this heavy fighting. Interestingly
enough, Horthy relieved two higher generals, Henrik Werth and Dezsö László, because of
their pro-German attitudes.
Commander of the 11th Panzer Division
On my last day at OKH10 I went to see Hitler’s adjutant, Major General Rudolf Schmundt,
one more time and proposed the reinstatement of General Heinz Guderian. Unfortunately,
Hitler was still completely against it. Only somebody who knew both personalities without
bias would be able to understand the situation. Shortly before Guderian’s relief there had
been a severe confrontation between the two. Guderian in his forthright manner had not
backed down. Hitler stated afterward, “I was not able to convince this man.” As an insider
I would interpret that as the admission: “He did not fall under my hypnosis.”
The incident created the irreconcilable rift. I could only carry out my duties as the
General of Mobile Forces at OKH if I had the recent frontline experience that would give
me the necessary moral authority. That was the official reason I gave when I requested
General Halder to reassign me to the front as a divisional commander. The unofficial
reason was that I had had enough of OKH. I had always considered myself a soldier first
and not a pencil pusher. During wartime I did not want to be the latter. Thus, I was given
command of the 11th Panzer Division, a unit that really only existed as remnants, although
it once had a good reputation. Making matters difficult but in some ways easier was the
fact that my predecessor11 had so thoroughly alienated all of his subordinate commanders
that twenty-two regimental and battalion commanders were then home on sick leave. I
received a thick folder in which my predecessor had documented the conflict between
himself and the commander of the division’s 61st Motorcycle Infantry Battalion,
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Freiherr von Hauser, an Austrian. The dispute was over the
legitimacy of Hauser using the noble title of Freiherr.12 In Austria the nobility had been
abolished. I had the folder destroyed and addressed Hauser right from the beginning as
Herr von Hauser and found him to be one of the best and toughest soldiers of the entire
war. He was a commander who stood out, even among the elite of the 11th Panzer
Division. Hauser ultimately became the last commander of the Panzerlehr Division.
The 11th Panzer Division was currently in positions east of Smolensk, engaged in a
defensive battle against partisans. I had brought the Motorcycle Infantry Training
Battalion from Germany in order to give this well-equipped training unit an opportunity to
gain some combat experience. But Field Marshal von Kluge immediately ordered this
valuable unit to remain near Dorogobuzh. In the back and forth haggling I managed to
maintain the upper hand. Von Kluge had with minimalist and detailed measures won the
Winter Battle, something that a commander more inclined to a broader stroke approach
might not have been able to do. But his resistance at this point to releasing any units made
it close to impossible to start new undertakings. He was “smart as a whip, had reckless
energy, but was small minded.”
Saying farewell to warfare against the partisans was no loss. Every soldier hated it. The
commander of the rear army area, General of Infantry Max von Schenkendorff, who we
came under, told me, “You can only overcome the partisans if you have enough troops
available. But even then, their elimination is questionable. The nature of the country
favors the criminal mind and the Russians are used to living off the land and have always
avoided political pressure. They will stop by themselves when Moscow has fallen and the
desire of the people for peace and quiet turns against the partisans.
“The ruble is no longer a valid currency. Money has no value. The Russians are numb
when it comes to the threat of heads rolling. One should use schnapps and tobacco as
payment and try to get the weapons out of the country. A lot wrong has been done. For one
example, fifty thousand prisoners were sent on furlough for the harvest. If they had been
called back after the harvest at the beginning of November they would have probably
come back. Now nobody will come back. (Relata refero—This is only hearsay.)”
After attending a good art history lecture in the cathedral at Smolensk, I moved
southward to Kursk. My movement was dogged by rain, impossible trails, breakdowns, no
fuel, twenty-four-hour convoys, and towing and changing vehicles. The troops were not
doing much better. In Bryansk I stayed in a soldiers’ convalescent home. When I did not
use proper blackout procedures at night, I was promptly scolded by the head nurse, a
Baltic-German Baroness von Wolff. After the war in Stuttgart I was able to thank this
wonderful lady properly for her strict training discipline. She became a frequent and
welcome guest in my home there.
The Readiness of the Division
Despite all the efforts some areas still looked dismal. Personnel and weapons were at 100
percent. Motorized vehicles were still 40 percent short. I had to initiate emergency
measures. Artillery batteries were formed with six guns each,13 and thus the number of
batteries was reduced. The 111th Panzergrenadier Regiment was made mobile—actually
not quite mobile. The men had to march or were made temporarily mobile by assigning
them to a motor column unit.
Certainly the commander of my 11th Panzergrenadier Brigade14 was right when he said
that we had never before entered into an offensive so poorly equipped. But the majority of
the units that were set to attack at the lower Volga and the Caucasus were finally fully
equipped. It was an organizational masterpiece that we were capable of attacking at all
after the last winter. And the Russians were not any better off.
The division was ordered to cover the major offensive of Army Group South on its left
flank, move toward Voronezh, and break through the Russian positions along the Tym
River.
After several days of thorough reconnaissance, questioning prisoners, and meeting with
the artillery and the adjacent units, everything was set. I did not issue a written order, but
rather oriented all the commanders using a detailed map exercise and a terrain walk. That
technique had the advantage that all doubts could be cleared up immediately and wrong
interpretations and misunderstandings came to light right away. My General Staff officer
Ia,15 the very capable Kienitz, unfortunately summarized everything in a written order and
sent an unsolicited copy to the corps headquarters. He received it back well edited. All I
said was, “There you go. Why did you have to go straight to your prince?”16 We did not,
however, change a thing. And never again during this year of unclouded and magnificent
cooperation did we publish anything in writing.
In the meantime nature provided us some security. It rained and rained, turning the
roads into a soapy mess.
Toward Voronezh
On 28 June at 0200 hours in the morning I was at my command post. The world was quiet
and peaceful. Not a single sound interrupted the silence. The blooming pastures gave off a
nice aroma. At 0215 hours an artillery barrage of incredible force broke loose. Dust,
smoke, and thunder covered everything. Fifteen minutes later a Russian battery answered.
Their fire landed somewhere harmlessly in the fields. Soon I could see our riflemen
everywhere climbing up the enemy hillsides. At 0900 hours the first bridge was ready and
I was able to cross and drive to the 539th Infantry Regiment, which had been attached to
me. The regimental commander was beaming. Against his expectations his troops, all of
them originally classified as uk-gestellte17 laborers deferred from military service, had
fought magnificently.
Then I went to one of my own infantry regiments. I walked along the forward lines
while the troops were being engaged. Every officer and NCO jumped up and while
standing at attention reported to me under enemy fire, just like during a peacetime
inspection. From that moment on I had control of the division. Then I got back into my
Kübelwagen18 and accompanied the Panzer regiment that was moving toward
Mikhaylovka.
It was an intoxicating picture, the wide, treeless plains covered with 150 advancing
tanks, above them a Stuka19 squadron. At the next river section, at the Kschen, we ran into
new resistance. I halted the attack and made sure nobody was bunching up. Then I went
back through the high rye fields to our vehicles with my adjutant, Reserve Major von
Webski. Once in a while a Russian infantryman would pop up in fields of high grain, look
around shyly, and drop back down again while moving eastward.
Massive, heavy artillery fire was dropping all around us. In the middle of a sentence
Webski dropped to the ground, hit by a shell fragment in his left temple. Instinctively I
pulled his hand away from his wound and bandaged him. He fought me and said, “Sir, you
have more important things to do right now. I can take care of myself.” Then he lost
consciousness. I handed him off to my aide, who took him back to the rear. A few days
later this marvelous man passed away without ever having regained consciousness. One of
the points that he had always stressed over and over was the necessity of wearing a steel
helmet, because of the high mortality rate of head wounds. He had not been wearing his
steel helmet when he was hit. Otherwise, who knows… .
That night I stayed put where I was, because it was unlikely that we would have found
our way back to the command post. Besides, I had everything under control by radio. We
pushed the vehicles together like circled wagons and fell asleep. Suddenly there was
horrible yelling and screaming. “The Russians!” Everyone grabbed his weapon. A
motorcycle messenger had run over some Russians who had settled down nearby, and now
with horrible screams they were all torn from their sleep.
Minor Events
Rain, rain, and more rain. Everything was soapy. Laboriously everybody was sloshing
forward. On the Kschen River our Stukas mopped up the opposing Russian tanks.
But the Russian fighter planes were also zeroing in on the 11th Panzer Division. Just as
I was poring over a map with my chief of staff in my command car, a strafing round shot
right between us into the map. Shortly after that supplies and our supporting infantry
division arrived and we moved on. My 15th Panzer Regiment moved forward with
unbelievable speed, disappeared over the horizon, and was not to be seen anymore. I drove
after them for two lonely hours along the clearly marked tracks. I caught up with them as
they were establishing a strongpoint six kilometers in front of the Olym sector.
A shortage of fuel had ended that push, but the Russian front had been penetrated
completely. Naturally the infantry divisions lagged far behind the Panzers on the left and
on the right. On the morning of 1 July I had enough forces together, and most importantly
the necessary fuel, so that I could position my Panzer regiment on the Olym crossing near
Naberezhnoye. As I was following the unit I saw a tank in a field of high grain. I drove
toward it intending to ask the position of the regimental staff. When I was about two
hundred meters away I recognized that it was a Russian tank. When I finally arrived at the
Olym the last hand grenades were being thrown and then we went up the next hillsides
quickly.
I stayed at the Olym and let the rest of the division move up to the seized bridgehead.
Engine noise and antitank and machine gun fire broke out, as seven Russian tanks were
trying to break through our lines from the rear in order to reestablish contact with their
own lines. Six of them broke down under our fire. The seventh raced forward at high
speed and did not notice the twenty-meter drop at the bank of the Olym. It flipped over in
the air and dropped into the torrents of the river.
As we were driving through the steppes along the open flank of the division, a Russian
jumped up in front of us. My escort officer pointed at him. He only snapped back to reality
when I shouted, “Oh my God, get your pistol out!” The Russians could be like wounded
animals when you caught them. Whoever shot first under such circumstances would win.
This one for a change was harmless, but we were alone in a Kübel, without an escort.
Finale
To our right the main effort toward Voronezh was moving forward. As we were protecting
the left flank, we were hit by a series of Russian tank attacks. The fighting raged back and
forth. At one time the tank battle was circling around my command car just like a
carousel. From the vehicle’s roof I had a grand view, and I was able to direct the battle
from there. Gradually the adjacent units came up and we moved into a defensive line. One
Russian tank attack after another rolled up against us every day. We shattered them one
attack at a time before they even reached our front line. The area looked like a tank
cemetery. Various models were out there, even English ones. My division so far had
destroyed 160 Russian tanks with minimal losses. The long 50 mm and 75 mm cannons
that had finally been retrofitted onto our tanks gave us back full superiority over the T-34s.
We could stand up against them. But the Russians were good at setting up traps. Some of
their light tanks would pretend to bolt in front of us. If we followed carelessly we would
end up in a minefield and caught in a crossfire from the left and the right by camouflaged
antitank guns and heavy tanks.
I was able to hand off a secured sector to the infantry unit that relieved us. But they
were in bad shape. As I noted in my journal, it was “One antiquated outfit, not up to
modern warfare. As is so often the case, such a unit lacks self-confidence, and no
proclamation from the Führer can restore it. Only adequate equipment can do that.”
I had made a specific arrangement with my chief of staff regarding leadership. He
stayed with the divisional staff at a set location that was a little removed from the
immediate battle action, maintaining contact with the higher headquarters and the adjacent
units, and directing reinforcements to the front. Simultaneously, I remained mobile,
leading from the front by radio or by personal orders. I was always at the respective key
spot and could shift my position quickly.
I continued that command technique throughout my tenure as a division commander
and never regretted doing so. I still consider the often practiced approach wrong in which
the division commander and his chief of staff ride together in one vehicle. A vehicle
breakdown or a battle accident can cripple the entire leadership structure in a stroke, and
the inevitably greater radio traffic required by this method restricts mobility.
Although the losses during these actions were minimal, I was especially hard hit by one
piece of news. During the campaign in France I had told the Fahnenjunkers20 in my
regiment that their shoulder boards21 were waiting for them beyond the Maginot Line.
Their losses had been disproportionately high. I did not want to make this mistake again.
There would be time enough to die a hero’s death as an officer, and then it was almost
inevitable. I had issued clear orders regarding the deployment of the Fahnenjunkers to
make sure that they received a certain amount of frontline experience, but that their losses
would be manageable. So far that had worked out. I now had sent them home intentionally
before the offensive, either on leave or to the basic officer course. In Bryansk the train
they were on was caught in a bombing attack at night. Of my seventy young men, twenty
were dead and thirty-five wounded. One should not try to manipulate destiny.
After we had been pulled out of the line, I walked with my chief of staff one more time
back across the ground of the breakthrough at the Tym River. Comparing our initial
assessments with the actual situation we had faced, we had been 99 percent correct, thanks
largely to defectors from the other side. Walking the battlefields became a quiet but
intense retrospective, especially when I had to ask myself at every grave if this could have
been avoided or made more tolerable with a different approach.
Looking at the big picture, the results were not completely satisfactory. The Russian
tanks had suffered heavily during their counterattacks, but the bulk of their divisions
opposing us had evaded us masterfully. Using the fields of high grain and the countless
deep ravines, they had managed to withdraw. We took a few prisoners and did not capture
any guns. I saw only one antitank gun that they left behind. The blood losses of the
Russians had not been excessive at all.
Heading North
We actually had been expecting to move south toward the Caucasus, but then the orders
came sending us in the opposite direction, to the Second Panzer Army in Orel.
As a result of the previous Winter Battle, the positions in that sector were distorted in
an unfavorable shape, all interlocked, entwined, and indented through the vastness of
Russia. Realignment was necessary to free up extra forces. Such a shift could be
accomplished toward the rear or toward the front. If we did it toward the rear, the message
to the Russians would be clear that we did not intend to operate in that sector, and that
would allow them to shift their forces at will, especially toward the south in front of our
attack positions. If we aligned forward we could destroy their forces and leave them in the
dark operationally. The apparent threat to Moscow would tie up their forces in the center,
where they would not threaten us operationally.
The Battle of Sukhinichi
On the inner wing of the Second Panzer Army and the Fourth Army the Russians had
managed during the winter to establish a deep salient that we sealed off with a great effort.
Since then the Sukhinichi Bulge had been depleting our strength. Our intent was to attack
it from three sides, destroy the forces inside it, and establish a shorter, less exhausting
front line.
But then the Russians achieved some success at Rzhev, a situation that could have been
deadly to us. The forces designated to attack into the salient from the northwest were then
pulled out and deployed to the north.
After careful preparation the 11th Panzer Division attacked on 11 August. By that
evening we were approximately in the center of the Sukhinichi Bulge. To our left, the XLI
Panzer Corps attacking at the base of the bulge had only made insignificant progress. Its
Panzer divisions had not yet been retrofitted with the improved main guns. The Russians,
however, were totally surprised as usual, and initially panicked. The operations order of
the infantry corps that my division was attached to directed us to continue to attack
northward and then establish some maneuver space for the Panzer corps by striking
southward. Additionally, I was to keep open the gap to the rear. Since all of these missions
were too much for one division, I decided after a sharp confrontation with the corps staff
to strike initially with all of my available forces toward the south, in order to link up with
the XLI Panzer Corps. That was successful. The Russian forces in that area were
completely annihilated. Now we had our hands free to strike toward the north.
In the meantime, the Russians woke up and were rushing toward us with the strongest
forces from the north. Without interruption their aircraft, their artillery, and their
Katyushas22 were hammering at us. Then to our surprise the fully equipped 9th Panzer
Division passed right through us. Why we had not waited to attack until they had moved
up could not be explained. If they had been next to us on the day of the breakthrough, it
would have been easier to exploit the total surprise of the Russians, but now it was too
late. The Russians had used the time wisely.
The 11th Panzer Division now became part of the XLI Panzer Corps, which we
welcomed. Our association with the infantry corps had not been a happy one. Instead of
leading us, we only heard complaining: “Why isn’t the 11th Panzer Division there yet?”
Finally I radioed, “Request immediate visit by the commanding general by plane.” That
had shut the corps staff up, and when he finally arrived he landed to our delight in a hail of
Katyusha fire that was quite intense.
The heavy fighting continued, during which we made daily gains against newly
committed Russian units, but only painfully so. For days the heavy fighting raged without
decision in the primal forests of the Zhizdra. By 19 August it became clear that our
offensive had ground to a halt. As the heavy fighting continued I made the following
entries in my journal:
21 August: “The Russians are attacking from everywhere. Suddenly they have a lot of
artillery. All attacks have been completely repelled, except by our adjacent unit on the
right.”
22 August: “I was supposed to pull out the troops of the 20th Panzer Division, but also
continue to spearhead the attack. That was crazy. Insane phone conversations with the
higher headquarters. Additionally, there was the constant pressure that if a clear decision
was not reached within the next half-hour, a catastrophe would befall us with unnecessary
losses. I finally was able to assert myself. Just as it turned dark we moved back into a
short, defined line.”
23 August: “Again endless attacks. Prisoners are telling us that the slogan ‘Victory or
death!’ has been put out. But the victory belonged to us and death belonged to them.”
24 August: “Repelled strong attacks. Stalin’s order was to hold at all costs. Smart
propaganda among their people trumpeted the second front in France.”23
A Russian battalion was supposed to attack at 1400 hours. However, it was delayed
until 1800 hours because of the passive resistance of their troops, who then killed a
political officer and defected. There would be more coming over, but the process of
defecting was too difficult. If they tried to come over without a weapon they would be
shot by their own people. If they came over to us with a weapon, we naturally would shoot
them. We were too leery of their continued use of ruses.
At one point a unit of about fifty Russians was advancing against our positions through
the high grain. Suddenly one of the Russians started to shoot his own comrades with his
machine pistol and used the confusion to defect. He was a former tsarist officer candidate
who now enthusiastically demanded to fight with us against the Bolsheviks.
25 August: “Fragmented Russian attacks were destroyed one after another by the
concentrated fire from our divisional artillery. My superbly led 119th Artillery Regiment
proved to be a wonderful main effort weapon. A winter position is being established in the
rear, to which we are to withdraw slowly.”
26 August: “Trouble at the adjacent unit on our right. I’m distrustful of such reports.
Often they just want tank support, which they then commit incorrectly and turn them into
battle losses. I therefore sent out a recon scout team to the adjacent division to clarify what
was really going on. They first were to move up to the forward line and only then to the
divisional staff in order to develop an unbiased picture. After two hours I received a
classic message: ‘Forward line is holding. Regimental commanders gone nuts. Division
commander drunk. Leutnant X.’ ”
God protect the lieutenants of the German Army. Nobody on earth can replace them.
27 August: “Newly attacking Siberian troops have been repelled. We have to maneuver
without reserves. The only reason we can get away with it is because our troops are so far
above average.”
29 August: “Yesterday’s calm was a bluff. At 0130 hours all hell broke loose with
fighter planes, artillery barrages forward, and harassing fires on all routes in the rear. Soon
the reports started to come in. Tanks broken through everywhere and striking deep into the
rear. Horrible moments, without a reserve. The first impression was everything had gone
to hell. Then things started looking up. Somebody reported two Russian tanks destroyed,
then seventeen tanks. Finally the picture clarified. The forward lines had held mostly, but
several Russian tanks had broken through.”
I had kept First Lieutenant24 Piontek with the rest of my tanks on alert in the rear. Now
I ordered him to go. He nicely managed to clean up the situation and to destroy the enemy
tanks. Then we dealt with the bulges in the main line of resistance.25 By the evening
everything was in order. We were lucky that we had been able to separate the Russian
infantry from their tanks immediately with machine gun fire and artillery and then destroy
them both separately. In the evening I could see that my division had achieved a huge
success. We had destroyed ninety-one enemy tanks, which made our total kill 501 since
the beginning of the spring offensive. The Russian attack had been led by approximately
two infantry divisions and three tank brigades of the IX Tank Corps. Hundreds of dead
were lying everywhere.
We had not lost a centimeter of our position. The 11th Panzer Division was mentioned
in the Wehrmacht daily report. Our number of destroyed enemy tanks was never equaled
by any other division during the war. It was a huge success, but it was a fight that did not
leave me satisfied at its conclusion, because of the stress and strain it inflicted. Our losses
had not been minimal.
30 August: “A quiet day today. An older Soviet political officer defected today,
something that had never happened before. He said he could not go on any longer, he
could not stand the endless slaughter. Today in the afternoon a Soviet tank defected, with
its gun tube elevated and a white flag flying. That was new, too.”
Even though the division’s leadership had worked out perfectly, the main credit must
go to the courageous men in the front lines. Above all it was Lieutenant Piontek, the
adjutant of the 15th Panzer Regiment, who led the tanks of the divisional reserve from one
successful action to the next. Unfortunately, army group headquarters refused to award
him the Ritterkreuz26 because he had acted on orders rather than on his own initiative.
Then there was Senior Corporal27 Alois Assmann of the 61st Panzerjäger Battalion.28
Wounded and only superficially bandaged, he destroyed eight tanks in one hour, during
which time he had to turn his antitank gun around twice during engagements because
enemy tanks were also approaching from his rear. He did receive the Ritterkreuz.
One of my lone tanks saw three T-34s approaching, destroyed all three, but also caught
fire itself. The crew bailed out, rescued their wounded, returned to the tank and
extinguished the fire, and then brought it back to our own lines.
One rifleman rushed up close against one enemy tank, ignited an explosive charge with
a match, and saved himself at the last moment by jumping for cover before the tank blew
up.
1 September: “The last few days have been relatively quiet. I was up front with the
troops. I saw tank sitting next to tank, shot up or destroyed by raiding parties. The terrain
looked like one big massive tank cemetery. I had never seen anything like it. The division
can be proud of itself. The equipment of six enemy tank brigades is scattered along our
route of march, as well as in front of and even in our positions. We simultaneously
destroyed the same number of enemy infantry divisions. Unfortunately, none of this
translated into an operational success. But at least it looks like our counterattack broke off
the Russian offensive.”
3 September: “Two somewhat wild days. Yesterday I was in the front lines There was
heavy fire. At noon the Russians attacked along the whole front. We stopped them
completely in front of us. Again, there were hundreds of dead everywhere to our front.
Unfortunately, the right wing of the 9th Panzer Division could not hold and the enemy
broke through deep into my left flank and rear. Toward the evening we had taken care of
that situation, too, except for one small bulge on the left flank. We destroyed thirty-five
enemy tanks. Naturally, we too suffered losses that weighed especially heavily at this
point.
“At night we harassed the Russians with loudspeakers. The defected political officer
and other higher ranking Russian soldiers spoke back to their own lines. In the end we had
forty-eight more defectors.
“Today at noon the bulge on the left wing was supposed to have been cleaned up in
coordination with the 9th Panzer Division. Strong Russian artillery interdiction fire
prevented us from accomplishing that mission completely. While that action was still
under way, the left wing of the adjacent unit on our right collapsed. I had to decide to
abort the attack on the left and throw my Panzer regiment against my right flank to
stabilize the situation. The action is still going on as I write this. Slowly one reaches a
state of psychological equilibrium that cannot be shaken by anything. Today during the
height of the crisis we were laughing and bantering in our command vehicle. Hopefully,
the Russians will soon stop these senseless attacks.”
In the evening all the towns around us were in a state of chaos. The Russians had
crashed into Kolosovo, and we were not able to clean up the mess completely. The
commander of my Panzer regiment had nothing left to throw against them. Eventually I
was able to help by making a slight adjustment of the main line of resistance. By midnight
it was all over.
4 September: “Same routine as yesterday. First there was trouble in Kuvshinovo, where
we destroyed ten tanks. That was followed by heavy attacks in Kolosovo, with the usual
breakthrough and subsequent clean up. Thank God I have first-class artillery that always
responds at the right time.”
5 September: “Today at 0400 hours there was something new—a mass attack on
Kolosovo in the early morning dawn. I had anticipated something like that. They had fired
an artillery barrage with twelve batteries between 0300 and 0400 hours. Then the attack
broke down rapidly.
“Now finally it is calm. Did they have enough? My troops are pretty worn out. I would
like to take them back to the winter positions as soon as possible. But higher headquarters
does not want to pull back yet. This is a very exhausting form of fighting.
“We undoubtedly kicked the enemy’s butt really hard. But with utter ruthlessness they
threw human wave after human wave against us. Their officers stayed in their rear and
shot their own troops from behind when necessary to keep them advancing. This happened
frequently. But our loudspeaker propaganda produced good results. We took in many
defectors, 150 collected by one of my battalions alone. Some one hundred more defectors
in the same sector were mowed down by a Russian tank just as they were coming across.
The Russians also abandoned three of their tanks yesterday. We put them to use
immediately.29 All of this indicates strong demoralization. But the enemy’s leadership is
too brutal. Up until now they have managed to crush all signs of weakness in their own
lines. Will this keep working in the long run? I doubt it.”
10 September: “For a few days now we have been pulled back a short distance. Our
forward line had finally been withdrawn to form a shorter main line of resistance, which
we had been improving for the last several days. That was a relief for the troops. They
were quite worn out. The following report excerpt is a typical example of what they
accomplished: ‘the 61st Motorcycle Infantry Battalion had been engaged in combat action
for three continuous weeks without relief. Within six days it destroyed eighty-five enemy
tanks, fifteen of them in close combat action. The forward line of the battalion was often
overrun by the tanks. The trenches that the enemy penetrated into were retaken every time
through desperate counterattacks, man against man.’ ”
From 14 August through 9 September that battalion launched eight attacks, repelled
forty-two enemy attacks, and launched twenty-three hasty counterattacks.30 By the
hundreds the dead Russians lay in front of and in the battalion’s position.
And now the downside. The battalion’s surgeon, Dr. Hellweg, wrote in a report on 4
September, “The health condition of the troops has deteriorated drastically. The troops are
extremely exhausted. Their leaders can no longer motivate them. Everywhere there are
cases of total exhaustion and weakness. Since food can only be brought forward at night,
the troops have not had a warm meal in weeks. Add to that the effects of hypothermia in
the trenches and foxholes. Infectious colds of the bladder and diarrhea are extremely
common, without the possibility of treatment. Since the beginning of operations on 11
August the troops have not been able to wash themselves. They are dirty and covered with
lice. Illness associated with poor hygiene is widespread.”
That the battalion had accomplished so much under such conditions is to the credit of
its commander, the tough Austrian Captain Freiherr von Hauser. But he was not only
tough, he was also caring and skillful. He led from the front, conducting numerous, rapid,
and unpredictable counterattacks, so that his unit was never taken under flanking fire and
his soldiers were always able to counterattack from secure positions. Also, the battalion’s
very busy and caring surgeon, Dr. Hellweg, never wavered and made a major contribution
to the unit’s success. Dr. Hellweg was the best military surgeon that I knew in both wars.
His name deserves to be remembered.31
Between Battles
The 11th Panzer Division was finally pulled out of the line. It left the field as a battlehardened unit that had not known failure, only victory. Our losses had been heavy because
we were almost always on the defensive. But the division’s core held firm, and we
received an unprecedented recognition. An after-action order of the Second Panzer Army
read as follows:
Panzer High Command 2
The Commander in Chief
Army Headquarters, 9 September 1942
To the 11th Panzer Division:
After the victorious conclusion of the fighting in the Voronezh Sector the division
had been attached to the Second Panzer Army to assume a special attack mission.
Faithful to the reputation that preceded it for outstanding combat
accomplishments, gained in countless battles, the division once again has conducted
itself in an outstanding manner. Committed in the most forward lines, it was the first
to break through the strong and tenaciously defended enemy positions and it
remained the pacesetter during the thrust toward the Zhizdra.
Likewise during the ensuing, heavy defensive engagements, the division despite
high enemy numerical superiority and heavy losses managed time and again to
prevent an enemy breakthrough by launching counterattacks under the most difficult
conditions.
With the departure of the division from my command, I want to express my
special thanks and full recognition to the officers, officials,32 noncommissioned
officers, and enlisted soldiers for your outstanding accomplishments. I am
convinced that in the future the division will accomplish all missions with the same
energy and motivation. I wish you success and soldier’s luck.
Signed Schmidt33
Colonel General
Commander, Second Panzer Army
Bryansk
The division’s regiments were resting near Bryansk. I had entertainment organized for the
troops. The old warriors were sitting in the theater. Full of expectations, their eyes were
focused on the stage. An actor came out emphatically singing his song:
“Oh, what fun it is to be a soldier… !”
A booing and jeering chant swept through the audience. The actor recovered quickly
and countered with another song:
“That cannot possibly rattle a sailor…”
The front line and the rear will never understand each other. This bordered on sabotage,
but I laughed my heart out.
The division was billeted nicely in clean workers’ quarters. The workers lived well, at
least by eastern standards. The farmers did not. That was true for the Russian military, too.
The majority of the Russian farmers served in the infantry, were badly fed, and often
fought badly. The industrial workers served in the tank corps and as aviators and were
better fed and fought better.
A doctor that had been on duty here for a long time told me that it had not been
possible since we had gotten here to establish a brothel, neither here nor anywhere else.
Since 1933 the family had been the official center of German life. Honoring your parents
was expected, grandparents were addressed with the “formal you.”34 Sexually transmitted
diseases were unknown. Of the thirty unmarried girls employed in the sector, twenty-eight
were virgins.
Back South Again
The division rolled out by train, southward toward Stalingrad. I had driven on ahead.
When I reported to the army group headquarters in Starobilsk I was told that all transports
had been stopped at Voronezh. What exactly was going on there was unknown.
Throughout the fertile country, harvest and fall planting was going on. Then we
continued moving back north again, to the Second Army. Nothing was going on there
either, and the division got some well-deserved rest. The sensible commander in chief,
General Hans von Salmuth, left us alone, and his chief of staff, my old comrade Major
General Gustav Harteneck, took excellent care of us. After the incredible successes of our
southern offensive there was a lot of talk about a separate peace with Russia. But that was
wishful thinking. Unfortunately, we totally misinterpreted our successes.
Calm Days, Partisans, and the Rear
We were moved north into the area around Roslavl as a last resort reserve for OKH. The
Russians supposedly were preparing an attack. Roslavl was full of rear-area types and
supply units, approximately thirty thousand men. I had dinner with the commander of the
rear area. He had opened a “house of depravity,” with great food, a string quartet, friendly
female artists—all just for a select circle. The man knew how to live. The Russian service
girls naturally had all been checked to ensure they were anticommunist and they did not
know a word of German. Sancta simplicitas!35
All military plans were discussed openly there. Roslavl was close to a huge forest area
that was full of partisans. The lover of a Russian major who was serving with us was our
primary source of intelligence on the partisans. According to her reports there were
several thousand partisans in the forest in well-developed positions and numerous
bunkers. If they attacked it would be impossible to hold Roslavl, and such an attack was to
be expected any hour. Only a few thousand men were available for the defense. I was
sitting on a powder keg.
At the Fourth Army headquarters of Colonel General Gotthard Heinrici, things were
run with more discipline, in a clear, objective, and determined manner. The presence of the
11th Panzer Division was an opportune chance to clear the partisans out of the Roslavl
forest. Considering the conditions in Roslavl, I requested that no specific orders be issued
and that I be given a free hand. This was granted immediately.
Nevertheless, it was still like knocking down a hornet’s nest. I received calls and offers
of help from all sides. The “rear echelon heroes” did not want to miss out on the
opportunity to improve their rations by trailing in the wake of a Panzer division. The worst
was the call from a chief surgeon of a military hospital. He offered to accept the potential
wounded of the division in return for two milk cows. He did not expect the answer he
received.
I let some time go by for emotions to calm down. I issued a warning order initiating
movement in the opposite direction, toward Smolensk–Rzhev. Then I sent out an advance
party toward the north and alerted the division to be prepared to march either north or
south. Finally I deployed my forces in concentric circles around the forest. In order to
maintain immediate situational awareness, I moved with the most forward elements of the
infantry that combed the forest. Initially one of my reconnaissance teams had one
engagement, and we took several small camps and small ration caches. On the first day we
captured approximately 150 men. On the third day strangers started appearing in the
surrounding villages. It had gotten too cold in the forests for the partisans. From that point
on they were easy to capture. They never had more than three thousand or four thousand
men. They had not let anybody into their camps and their ration supply had been
decentralized with the local farmers. Every one of them had been forced to establish a
small cache, hoping too that we would not take it away from the farmers. One camp had a
bakery. We also found two improvised airstrips with an airplane, with which they
maintained liaison with Moscow.
I took control of the food supplies. The farmers were only allowed to draw small
quantities, and the partisans therefore lost their base support in the area. They had lived
safely and quietly behind the bogus intelligence that the mistress of the Russian major had
passed on to us regarding their strength, their fortifications, and their intentions. Needless
to say, the lady in question disappeared from that day on, never to be seen again.
The partisans had managed to survive so long because we had only been able to muster
old and incapable troops against them. And they were no match for the partisans. When
one such unit was committed against the partisans, the officer of the guard shot and killed
one of his own sentries at night, which triggered a spasm of shooting and increasing
ripples of machine gun fire, grenade launchers, and hand grenades. Finally, after hours of
“bitter fighting,” they finally realized that they had been playing a “lion’s game.” Two
lions, as the fable went, entered the forest and ended up full of rage eating each other. The
net result was two more Germans were killed and many more wounded. No partisans were
involved in this fiasco. But when despite everything that unit submitted a mass
recommendation for the Iron Cross, the sad truth of the affair came to light.
Otherwise the partisan war was conducted with a great deal of cruelty. Cases of
cannibalism were credibly reported.
From Stalingrad to Kharkov
To the Quiet Don
I read in the Wehrmacht report that the Russians had broken through at the Great Bend in
the Don River, and that countermeasures had been initiated. We were the countermeasures.
My command car was sitting on a rail flatcar, while in cozy comfort we rolled along in the
train toward the next huge mess. “There is one thing we must be clear about,” I wrote in
my journal, “obscure conditions, Russian breakthroughs, uncontrollably fleeing allies, and
a division arriving piecemeal. This will be our lot. It will cost us dearly.”
I had no illusions. The positive side was that the 11th Panzer Division was combat
experienced and confident of victory. Personnel and equipment were at 100 percent
strength. We were fully mobile. Unfortunately, Field Marshal von Kluge had managed to
detach the 3rd Battalion of my Panzer regiment. It remained in the north and was rusting
away because of a lack of maintenance resources. As part of the division it would have
been a great value. The technological aspects of warfare must be managed, too.
Unfortunately, I was not able to get my way this time.
Map 5. The Stalingrad Campaign, December 1942–January 1943. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
A few weeks previously Hitler had issued a very sensible order. Considering the certain
difficulty of the coming winter, all commanders who were not up to handling the stress
were to be relieved and replaced. I did that with commanders of one regiment and one
battalion, much to the benefit of the troops. Now I felt I could rely completely on any of
my commanders.
On 27 November the divisional staff was in Millerovo at the army group headquarters.
The situation had calmed down a little. Along the Chir River a weak front manned by
quick reaction forces was able to hold the line because the bulk of the Russian forces were
tied down at Stalingrad. In the evening I went to see General of Infantry Kurt von
Tippelskirch, who was babysitting the Italian Eighth Army. I wanted to develop a better
picture of the situation. He welcomed me with the words, “I still often think of your
excellent report on Hungary. You were the only one who dug below the surface and
correctly analyzed the people.” But Tippelskirch harbored no illusions about the reliability
of the Italians.
Stalingrad was being held as a fortress. The Russians had broken through the
Romanians from both sides and had encircled the German Sixth Army. Now we were
preparing for the relief action. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was now commanding
the new Army Group Don and was in charge of the operation. The Romanians had taken
off running like rabbits. You could not really blame them. Marshal Ion Antonescu had
formed more divisions than he could equip and, most importantly, more than he had
competent officers for. So, the end result was a bunch of ragtag units. Now the mess had to
be cleaned up. I expected the Russians to continue to attack our allies along the middle
Don in order to draw away our reserves that were assembling for the counterattack.
28 November: “Yesterday the storm was howling across the steppes and today there
was a marvelous sky across the wide, beautiful land. Here everything was more friendly
and clean looking than up north. Our village was quite nice.”
You had to hand it to the Russians. Their leadership at the strategic- operational level
was excellent. They had managed together with the Anglo-Americans in North Africa36 to
launch a major offensive in two decisive locations at the same time. Hats off to their clear
vision, consistency, and organizational talent. It will always stand as an example of what a
hard, brutal leadership under unfavorable conditions can wrest from even an unwilling
people.
1 December: “Alarm at night.”
We were supposed to move immediately to Morosowskaja to support the Romanian
Third Army, where the situation was on fire. I managed to postpone the move by twentyfour hours, and then I drove there with Kienitz. The commander, Lieutenant General Petre
Dumitrescu, was handsome in appearance and had a most impressive personality. The
Romanians themselves said of him that he “looked like a European.” He carried the fate of
a beaten battlefield commander with much dignity. For two days now Colonel Walther
Wenck,37 formerly the Ia38 of the 1st Panzer Division, had been serving as the chief of
staff there. With the help of construction battalions and rapid response forces they had
managed to establish a new front line along the Chir River. But along the sixty-kilometer
front line they had only one lone field gun and one mobile field howitzer. Since the
Russian priority was to break the resistance at Stalingrad first, the Chir front line had been
able to hold, and hopefully would continue to hold until our deployment was complete.
The primary thing to worry about was whether the Russians to our rear on the middle
Don River would be able to break through along the boundary between the Hungarians
and the Italians. That was where the Russian forces were assembling. We set our
countermeasures in motion, but would we have enough time? Our railroad network in
Russia was not at all capable—and it never would be.
The Russian I Tank Corps
7 December: Even before we arrived the 336th Infantry Division under Major General
Walter Lucht had arrived at the Chir and had been committed along the river line. While I
was reconnoitering at the Chir the bad news came in that the Russians had broken through
the advance lines and were at the deep left flank of the 336th Infantry Division. I drove
immediately to Warche–Solonowski, where the staff of the 336th was located. They made
a calm and amiable impression. I established my divisional command post right next to
theirs. That was against all the standard procedures, but it worked out perfectly in the end.
Both divisions now came under the XLVIII Panzer Corps, commanded by General of
Panzer Troops Otto von Knobelsdorff. His chief of staff was Colonel Friedrich-Wilhelm
von Mellenthin. An exceedingly harmonious relationship between Mellenthin and me
developed that would last throughout the rest of the war.
On 8 December everything was ready for the attack. It was critical to be an hour earlier
than the Russians at the decisive point. That was the rule we followed almost daily from
there on out. Unfortunately, the situation was so critical at that point that I could not wait
until I was able to commit the whole division together.
In order to screen the 336th Infantry Division, I had established a blocking position
made up of air defense units, engineers, and antitank guns. It was rather obvious that the
Russians intended to overrun the 336th Division. When the Russians got ready to attack
the next morning we were right there. They did not suspect our presence. The 15th Panzer
Regiment, under its tested commander, Colonel Theodor Graf von Schimmelmann, was
followed by the 111th Panzergrenadier Regiment. Both of my regiments hit the Russians
in the rear, just at the moment they were starting to advance to the East. First they
annihilated a long column of mechanized infantry, and then the mass of the Russian tanks
that were attacking the 336th Division. I positioned my approaching 110th
Panzergrenadier Regiment toward Sovkhos 79,39 where another significant number of
Russian tanks were cut off in the valley. We could see tanks, trucks, and Russians running
back and forth nervously. By that evening the Russian I Tank Corps had ceased to exist.
Fifty-three Russian tanks had been shot up on the steppes.
Sovkhos 79
As I drove through Sovkhos [State Farm] 79 a horrible picture unfolded before me. The
supply units of the 336th Division had been staged there. By the hundreds our brave
soldiers had been brutally slaughtered. They had been surprised and destroyed by the
Russians in the early morning hours.
That scene made one basic fact clear. This was all about the existence or nonexistence
of our people. Would it be possible in the face of this extremely tense situation and the
endless Russian onslaught to protect the Fatherland? We believed and hoped that we
could. I summarized the situation in a divisional order of the day, one of the very few that
I ever published:
11th Panzer Division
Staff Section Ic40
Comrades,
The Bolshevist cruelties at Sovkhos 79, where several hundred German soldiers
were slaughtered by the Russians, will remain in our memories forever.
The interrogation of the prisoner of war, Sergeant Ivan Jakovevich Kurilko, from
Kharkov, born 1918, 1st Company, 346th Tank Battalion, 157th Tank Brigade,
resulted in the following information: At a meeting shortly before 19 November
1942 (in preparation for the brigade to attack the Romanian Third Army) at which
all brigade and battalion commanders were present, two Romanians were brought
before them who supposedly had deserted. Those assembled were told that these
were Romanians, and that Romanians were to be taken prisoner. They were ordered,
on the other hand, to take no German prisoners.
Map 6. Battle for State Farm 79, 7–8 December 1942. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
They were ordered not to shoot Romanians in front of Germans, but to shoot
Germans in front of Romanians. This statement corroborates what we have seen
with our own eyes at Sovkhos 79. It is also consistent in all details with the repeated
announcements in the Anglo-American press calling for the complete eradication of
the German people.41
In total contradiction to this, as all of you know, is the dishonest Russian
propaganda that promises German defectors and prisoners safety and return to the
Fatherland after the war.
Comrades, the tough days of fighting that are behind us now show us anew that
this is about the existence or nonexistence of our people. If in the future you waver
in your courage, should you grow weak during the bitter fighting, always remember
the Anglo-American hate tirades, the slogans of the 157th Russian Tank Brigade,
and the horrible sights at Sovkhos 79 that prove to us without a doubt the fate that
will await us if we do not win this fight.
Signed
Balck.
Based on this order, claims were later made that I had ordered the shooting of all
Russian prisoners. I never again released such an edict. Its sole purpose had been to show
everybody what our situation was in the big picture and what was at stake. I found other
ways to tell my people the truth.
On the Chir River
The 336th Infantry Division was positioned solid as a rock on the Chir River. Everything
depended on it holding fast, even in the most desperate situations. It was the shield and the
pivot for all of the operations of the 11th Panzer Division. The 336th understood its
mission completely. Showing strong nerves, the 336th mastered every crisis it faced. That
made it possible for the 11th Panzer Division to attack the Russians with concentrated
force anywhere they broke through. General Lucht never lost his nerve. He never in a
crisis interfered with the units of the 11th Panzer Division. Without this shield, the
successes of the 11th Panzer Division would have been unthinkable. The tight cooperation
between the two divisional staffs bore unimaginable fruit. Unfortunately, the equipment of
the 336th Division was sparse. It was especially too short of antitank guns for its mission.
That, of course, only made their achievements all the greater.
Map 7. Battles on the Chir River, 8–19 December 1942. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
From 9 December through the 17th the days were all the same. The Russian forces
would break through at location X. We would counterattack, and in the evening everything
was back to normal. Soon, another report would come in of a deep breakthrough at the
position of some rapid reaction force. We would turn around with lights blazing, tanks,
riflemen, artillery driving through the winter night. We were ready the next morning at
dawn. Positioned at the Russians’ weakest point, we would bear down on them in surprise
and destroy them. The following morning we would play the same game ten or twenty
kilometers farther to the west or east.
It was a complete mystery to me when the soldiers actually slept during those nine
days. One tank crewman had added up the hours of sleep he had gotten during those days.
Even if I had doubled the count it still would have been totally implausible. At the same
time the fighting was not as easy as it may sound here. Quite often elements of one of my
units were overrun by the Russians, encircled, and had to be extracted. Additional enemy
forces always tried to exploit any successful attack. But our losses were not that high
because we used surprise to our advantage. “Night marches save blood” became the
slogan in the division. I often yelled to the men, “What do you want to do, bleed or
march?” “Let’s march, Sir,” came the answer from the tired and worn-out faces.
With delight we followed the initial successes of Colonel General Hermann Hoth’s
Fourth Panzer Army. The more enemy forces we drew toward us, the easier would be the
mission of the Fourth Panzer Army. “Is our adversary the Fifth Tank Army still there, or
did they march off against Hoth’s army?” That was the daily critical question. Then a
report would arrive: “Tanks broken through at X,” and the reaction would be, “Thank
God, they are still here.”We developed a unique system for issuing orders. My General
Staff officer Ia, the brilliant Major Kienitz, sat in one position a little toward the rear and
maintained radio contact with me, the higher headquarters, and everyone else. I remained
highly mobile, moving to all the hot spots. I usually was at every regiment several times a
day. While still out on the line during the evening I drew up the basic plan for the next
day. After communicating by phone with Kienitz, I drove to every regiment and gave
them the next day’s order personally. Then I drove back to my own command post and
spoke by phone with the chief of staff of the XLVIII Panzer Corps, Colonel von
Mellenthin. If the commanding general Knobelsdorff concurred, the regiments received
the short message: “No changes!” If changes were necessary, I drove at night one more
time to all the regiments so that there would not be any misunderstandings. At daybreak I
was always back at the decisive point.
The Russians fought fanatically at times. One Russian tank that had been hit was sitting
behind our front lines for days, and I passed it frequently. Then a German staff car stopped
next to it and the crew got out to take a closer look. Suddenly the turret cupola opened and
a Russian popped up, threw a hand grenade, and disappeared back inside the tank. The
Russian tank was finally destroyed with a shaped charge, but the Russian crewman had to
have been waiting for his chance for several days.
The new 1st Luftwaffe Field Division42 arrived in the sector. It was magnificently
equipped and had good and willing people, but they had no real training. They were
absolute military novices. During any action they did not even have the capability to
maintain their supply of rations and ammunition. After a few days the division evaporated,
an ego toy of Göring, who wanted to form and control his own ground divisions, rather
than subordinate them to army operational control. Virgil’s proverb, Quidquid delirant
reges plectuntur Achivi,43 was a fitting description of these brave troops. Göring had been
popular once, but by this point in the war he had lost all of our respect and he would never
regain it.
My troops were outstanding. During those days I saw nothing that did not make me
proud of them. Even the attitudes of the wounded at the aid stations were exemplary.
The Soviet Motorized Mechanized Corps
The 11th Panzer Division had just stopped a deep Russian breakthrough with a swift
counterattack when an order from corps headquarters arrived: “Suspend current attack.
Russian forces broken through in-depth twenty kilometers farther west.” That was the
usual in the evening. I answered Mellenthin: “Fine, we will clean up right here first and
then we will take care of the other problem.”
“No, General, this time it is more than critical. The 11th Panzer Division must go there
immediately, every second counts.”
“Okay, we will take care of it.”
So we halted our attack, refueled immediately, and distributed rations. I issued the
warning order: “Get ready to move in the direction of Nizhnee–Kalinouski. Twenty
kilometer march distance. Drive with headlights on. On 19 December in the morning you
will be deployed as follows: the 111th Panzergrenadier Regiment secures the right flank of
the attack against Nizhnee and Kalinouski; the 15th Panzer Regiment penetrates into the
enemy left flank; the 110th Panzergrenadier Regiment deploys on the Line A–B against
the Russian attack, artillery, . . . etc.”
Map 8. 11th Panzer Division Counterattack, 19 December 1942. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
Tanks, infantry, and artillery all lumbered off into the dark night. At 0500 hours the
Russians arrived. Their tanks and other formations were rolling past us toward the south.
Then Schimmelmann44 released Captain Karl Lestmann’s element.45 Just like in a training
area, our tanks pivoted around and followed the Russians. The Russians had no idea that
the tanks following their columns were German. In just a few minutes Lestmann’s twentyfive tanks destroyed forty-two Russian tanks without any losses. Then they disengaged
and prepared in the hollow of a valley for the second Russian wave. As the Soviet tanks
moved across the crest of the ridge our guns fired from below. Again, the fight was over in
a few minutes. Twenty-five German tanks had shot up sixty-five Russian tanks without a
loss. The accompanying Russian infantry escaped initially, but then a Russian relief attack
broke down with heavy losses. The Soviet Motorized Mechanized Corps had also ceased
to exist. Shortly thereafter I moved among the still burning enemy tanks, thanking my
courageous troops. Gone was the strain of the previous days, as the smiling faces of the
unbeatable force peered out from their turrets.
On the 21st the division was in defensive positions when at 0200 hours Kienitz woke
me up. All hell had broken loose from all directions. The 110th Panzergrenadier Regiment
had been penetrated and the 111th Panzergrenadier Regiment overrun. The 15th Panzer
Regiment radioed that the situation was very critical. In the bright light of a full moon the
Russians had attacked with tanks and infantry right at the seam between the two
Panzergrenadier regiments.
Much of the situation had already been consolidated by the time I arrived at the scene. I
immediately threw the tanks and Hauser’s motorcycle riflemen into a hasty counterattack
to close the gap between the two regiments. By about 0900 hours everything was pretty
much back in order. Russians by the hundreds lay dead in front of and in our positions.
Our defense had been a solid success, but not without the cruelties of war. Russian tanks
had crushed some of our wounded on the ground, who then froze in that position. When
my troops saw what had happened they became uncontrollably mad, which is quite
understandable.
Our losses had been considerable. It was not an easy time to be a commander. Even if
the old eastern front proverb held that if the day starts out miserably, it usually ends with a
major success, it still was never easy in the face of the flood of bad news messages to
remain calm and focused. There were times when I thought that the division actually had
ceased to exist.
But the situation along the Chir River had been stabilized, and all was now quiet. All of
the subordinate corps of the Soviet Fifth Tank Army had been eliminated, one after
another, and mostly by the 11th Panzer Division. If the Fifth Tank Army had attacked with
all of its corps simultaneously across the Chir we could not have stopped them. We would
have been overwhelmed by the Russian masses. But the Chir line held. Part of our success
was a function of the poor training of the Russian troops. We had been able to manipulate
them. On 12 December the 11th Panzer Division was again mentioned in the Wehrmacht
report.
The Dike Breaks
There was no relief in sight for the 11th Panzer Division. On 23 December we received a
most cordial farewell from the XLVIII Panzer Corps, from Knobelsdorff and Mellenthin.
We had had a very positive association with that corps, based on trust and honest
camaraderie. I also had a farewell drink with General Lucht at the courageous 336th
Infantry Division, and then we moved off quickly to Morozovsk, to the Romanian Third
Army.
That was some situation we encountered. Paraphrasing Queen Elizabeth on the Spanish
Armada, I could only say: Stalinus afflavit ac dissipati sunt.46 The Italians had been swept
away and the Russians unopposed were thrusting south with multiple tank corps. Hitler
had ordered Morozovsk held at all costs.47 One Russian tank corps was advancing from
the north toward the town, with our fire brigades48 in its path. The Russians also were
feinting an encirclement of Tatsinskaya on the left. The situation was desperate and the
only hope was my tired and worn-out division, which was arriving piecemeal. I strongly
voiced the opinion that the situation was so hopeless that only boldness could overcome it
—in other words, an attack. Any defensive solution would result in destruction. The first
order of business would be to destroy the enemy’s western column, in order to clear our
rear area. Our fire brigades would have to hold out for one more day. There was no other
alternative. Thank God the German chief of staff of the Romanian Third Army was
Colonel Wenck, a man of strategic vision and strong nerves and the old Ia of the 1st
Panzer Division. He agreed with me completely and the glorious old Lieutenant General
Dumitrescu accepted the responsibility completely.
The Russian XXIV Tank Corps
Without waiting for reports, I decided to advance immediately to the position where the
Russian tank corps had advanced across the Bystraga sector. We would certainly hit
something there. Everything else would just have to fall into place.
24 December: It was a ragged bunch of German forces that punched into the Russians’
flank and rear that morning. I had only twenty tanks, one battalion with the strength of a
company. But I also had the mass of my still intact divisional artillery. Everything else was
on the road moving up. But what would have been the additional benefit of four more
battalions, each with the strength of a single company and hardly any heavy weapons left?
Nonetheless, I had hardcore soldiers with me, and we knew what we wanted.
I drove closely behind the lead tank. We encountered no enemy forces short of
Skasyrskaya. It was therefore clear that the Russians were farther along, at Tatsinskaya.
Reports started to come in confirming this. We took Skasyrskaya in an intense fight
against a Russian battalion supported by tanks. That in effect cut off the Russian main
route of retreat. I issued orders over the radio to deploy my rearward regiments that were
now arriving in the sector concentrically toward Tatsinskaya. Meanwhile, I monitored by
radio the enemy’s reactions. The Russian XXIV Tank Corps radioed to its units: “Enemy
tanks in our rear. All tanks assemble on me at Hill 175.” That location was exactly where
my plan would put them in a pocket. Thanks to their cooperation, we had the Russians
encircled inside of the pocket by the evening. They formed a huge “wagon fort” right
around Hill 175. Unfortunately, it was too late at that point to fire our artillery effectively
against them.
In the evening I was sitting comfortably together with old Dumitrescu, who by now
was quite relaxed and relieved. The fire brigades had all held their positions as well as
they could and our own 6th Panzer Division was arriving. The Russians were stunned and
hesitant along the whole front.
25 December: We tangled with each other all day long in the pocket and pushed the
Russians into Tatsinskaya, but in the end we could not crack the pocket. There apparently
were many more Russians inside the pocket than there were Germans outside of it. In the
evening they were preparing for a new attack, with which I had very little to oppose.
Thank God I had received operational control of one regiment and the assault gun
battalion of the 6th Panzer Division to break the Russian stronghold. The next day was not
going to be easy.
26 December: A day of rage. At first everything went very well with Hauser. In
coordination with Lestmann he took Krujkoff at night. Now we knew for sure that there
was nothing of significant strength left in our rear. Nothing went right at the pocket,
however. The assault gun battalion did not arrive. It had lost its way and was unavailable
for an entire day. Since I only had eight operational tanks, I was not able to crack into the
Russian stronghold by myself. We could only shake our clenched fists at them in
frustration. Tomorrow would be another day.
27 December: Our concentric attack on Tatsinskaya was starting to strangle the enemy,
but his resistance was still significant. At least we were wearing him down significantly.
We had destroyed twelve enemy tanks, but it was hard to estimate what they had left in the
cauldron. At the minimum they still had one tank brigade with strong infantry forces, most
likely the 24th Infantry Brigade. The XXIV Tank Corps headquarters also was certainly
trapped in there. We intercepted a radio transmission to them: “Hold out. Five infantry
divisions are coming.”
Very close to us a Russian plane landed, took off again, and was then shot down. The
two pilots were killed. Their charts and papers did not contain anything of importance.
Perhaps they had been trying to extract the commander of the XXIV Tank Corps from the
pocket. They had landed exactly where his command post had been located two days
earlier, and where mine was now.
28 December: “Today the pocket exploded. Of course, the events played out differently
than we had anticipated. Yesterday in the bright moonlit and starlit night I had pushed on
everybody to continue to attack. This morning at 0500 hours I was about to drive to the
front when my aide reported to me that the Russians had broken out toward the northwest.
That figured.” Our night attack hitting them from all sides had forced them to take that
action. Elements of the Russian forces had broken out in the sector of the 4th
Panzergrenadier Regiment.49 I drove forward. From all sides my regiments were entering
the town, breaking the remaining resistance. Only about twelve Russian tanks and thirty
trucks had managed to break out of the pocket. Everything else was destroyed, dead
Russians were everywhere, only a few escaped. That was the end of the XXIV Tank
Corps. We also hunted down and destroyed the twelve tanks and thirty trucks. The trucks
got stuck at a creek, and we burned several of the tanks. We had accomplished all of this
with a spent division that started with only twenty operational tanks. By the time it was
over we had eight to twelve tanks still running, but otherwise our losses had been
relatively minor.
The troops had been marvelous. Despite unbelievable hardships the morale was
excellent. Of course, the incredibly well-stocked supply depots in Tatsinskaya where
everybody had been able to resupply themselves contributed to that. Wherever I drove the
troops threw chocolate, cigarettes, and salami into my car. “We have to take care of our
general too!”
We could never be beat with soldiers like this. Whoever has lived through such a
completely hopeless situation and has seen how certain defeat was turned into a victory
could never doubt the victorious outcome of this war.
The area was now operationally calm and we were scheduled to be withdrawn. The
Russians had taken a bad hit here, and there would be a crisis somewhere else. We left the
area with a great deal of satisfaction. The 11th Panzer Division had the singular fortune to
take on an enemy twice its strength and win a Cannae-like battle. The Russians had been
led by their own Terrentius Varro,50 who played his part nicely. Maybe it was also an
omen that my divisional staff had the codename designation of HANNIBAL.
As soon as we had seized Tatsinskaya, the customary reports about the Tartars came in.
Fresh strong enemy forces were attacking near Skasyrskaya. I quickly turned the division
around. By 1145 hours the 15th Panzer Regiment and the 110th Panzergrenadier Regiment
under the steadfast Colonel Albert Henze had attacked and thrown back the Russian 266th
Infantry Division, which the previous night had marched blindly into Skasyrskaya,
ignorant of the overall situation. By this time we were very experienced in executing
turning movements.
Happy New Year
On the last day of the old year the 11th Panzer Division held a broad front in the Titzul
sector. I had reorganized the division to address disparities between supply elements,
vehicles, and combat power. I dissolved the Panzerjäger51 battalion and organized both the
Panzergrenadier regiments into one battalion each. The intent was to make the division
more mobile and harder hitting. Now we were no longer slowed down by countless extra
vehicles moving as a separate formation.
I drove to all the regiments to ensure that they understood the reorganization and that
the implementation would be completed by the next morning. “Guys, today is New Year’s.
The Russians will take advantage of it, so just cancel the New Year’s brouhaha for once
and remain alert.” That was my final warning.
“But, of course, Sir.” Happily they waved as I left. I could still hear in my mind the
greeting of the marvelous Colonel Alexander von Bosse: “Hello, hello General, Sir,
Happy New Year.”
The divisional staff had set up the command post at the Don River bridge, even though
it certainly did not belong there. We destroyed one Russian tank almost in our quarters.
Russian planes bombed the bridge that night. It was not light yet outside when Kienitz
stood at my cot with a somber face. “All hell has broken loose again. The division was
overrun tonight. We do not have contact with anybody.”
So, the damned New Year after all. Now it appeared to me that there had been the
smiles of Augurs on all the faces as I delivered my parting warning.
But that could not be helped now. I got into my Kübel and drove off. A short distance
from town I ran into five of my tanks. I transferred to a tank and took off with them. They
did not know anything about the situation. Then I ran into a battalion of the 15th Panzer
Regiment. The situation was still unclear, so I gave the order to move forward and attack
the next village. There we found a Panzergrenadier regiment that had established a
strongpoint against Ivan. Our attack resolved that immediate crisis. Then it was on to the
next village. It was the same picture there. Schimmelmann stood next to his tank and dryly
reported, “They did celebrate New Year’s after all.” Finally the rest of the division arrived.
When we were able to assess the battle damage we found that nothing much had
actually happened, except that the Russians had suffered senseless losses. Alcohol in a
good unit is totally harmless; in a poorly led one it spells catastrophe.
Hermann Balck’s great grandfather, the Hannoverian Major General Lütgen.
Hermann Balck’s father, Lieutenant General William Balck.
Hermann Balck as commander of the Sixth Army, 1945.
Hermann Balck’s son, Friedrich-Wilhelm Balck, was killed in action in June 1941.
Hermann Balck’s son-in-law, Senior Lieutenant Hans-Heinrich Schlenther, was killed in action at Stalingrad.
Hermann Balck as a child in his parent’s house.
Hermann Balck (seated middle) as an officer candidate, 10th Jäger Battalion, Goslar.
Hermann Balck (second from left) as watch commander, Dom Kaserne, Goslar.
Balck’s officer candidate tactical officer, Lieutenant Hans Kreysing, 1913.
The Guderian family (left to right), Heinz Guderian, Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Guderian, Fritz Guderian, and Clara
Guderian. Photograph taken in Bitsch, Lorraine, while Friedrich Guderian commanded the 10th Jäger Battalion.
Officer Candidate Hermann Balck, Christmas 1913.
Hermann Balck and his father in 1914.
Prince Leopold of Bavaria (third from the left), commander of Army Group Prince Leopold, visiting the 10th Jäger
Battalion.
Captain Heinrich Kirchheim, commander of the 10th Jäger Battalion, wearing the Pour le Mérite and Alpine Troops
Edelweiss badge.
Officers of Volunteer Jäger Battalion Kirchheim pulling security on Germany’s eastern border in the autumn of 1919.
Hermann Balck is the third from the left in the front row, and Heinrich Kirchheim is seated in the center of the front row.
Balck and his father, who was then the commander of the 51st Reserve Division. Note that both are wearing the Iron
Cross 1st Class.
Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) Hermann Balck, commander, 2nd Squadron, 18th Cavalry Regiment.
Adolf Hitler and Minister of War Colonel General Werner von Blomberg visiting Balck’s unit at Frankfurt am Oder in
1935.
Balck as the commander of the 1st Bicycle Infantry Battalion in Tilsit in 1935.
Balck’s unit loading in Patras, Greece. Left to right: Unidentified escort officer; Hermann Balck; Lieutenant Rämsch
(Balck’s adjutant); Field Marshal Wilhelm List; and Lieutenant Colonel Decker (Balck’s successor as commander of the
3rd Panzer Regiment).
Lieutenant General Albert Henze, commander of the 110th Panzergrenadier Regiment when Balck commanded the 11th
Panzer Division.
Colonel von Bonin, Balck’s chief of staff when he commanded the XIV Panzer Corps in Italy, 1 September 1943.
Staff of the XLVIII Panzer Corps during the battle at Brusilov in 1944. Left to right: Major Erasmus, operations officer;
Hermann Balck; Major Kaldrack, personnel officer; Colonel Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin, chief of staff.
Balck speaking with SS-Oberstgruppenführer Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich.
Balck in a situation conference with General of Panzer Troops Erhard Raus.
Balck as commander of Army Group G, with Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander in Chief West, and
General of Panzer Troops Otto von Knobelsdorff, commander, First Army.
Balck in his command car as commander of Army Group G.
Situation conference. Left to right: General of Infantry Otto Wöhler, commander of Army Group South; Colonel General
Heinz Guderian, chief of the Army General Staff; General of Infantry Hans von Greiffenberg; General of Panzer Troops
Hermann Balck, commander of the Sixth Army.
Major General Helmut Staedke, Mellenthin’s successor as chief of staff of Army Group G.
General of Panzer Troops Hasso von Manteuffel.
General of Panzer Troops Walther Wenck.
A German Panzer negotiating its way through thick Russian mud during the late autumn of 1941. (National Archives,
NARA0509033j)
A German machine gun crew in a street in the suburbs of Stalingrad. (National Archives, NARA0509018j)
15
1943
Nothing New in the East
Nothing changed much between 1 and 23 January 1943. Our first reinforcements arrived.
The Russians had been hit really hard and in some ways the situation had stabilized. But
according to my journal there were only three days during that period we did not fight and,
of course, days off did not exist.
The engagements mostly followed a common pattern. The Panzergrenadier regiments
moved into an extended position, and the Panzer regiment attacked to the front of them
and destroyed everything that moved toward us. Then we would have some peace while
the Russians turned toward an adjacent unit, which I then supported with the Panzer
regiment. Thus, a peculiar pattern emerged with something like the adjacent units fighting
a downstairs war, while we were fighting upstairs. This process worked well. I naturally
spent a lot of time at the adjacent units to coordinate the support. Colonel General KarlAdolf Hollidt had replaced Dumitrescu. He and his chief of staff, General Walther Wenck,
had been at General Friedrich Mieth’s IV Army Corps when I provided some support to
that unit. After that, Hollidt thought that the 11th Panzer Division should now come under
Mieth’s corps. Mieth, however, vetoed the idea, saying that coordination was now working
so well that it could only get worse if the command relations changed. I was pleased by
that decision, even though I have to admit that pure self-interest required me to commit all
means at my disposal to support the units on my flanks. Following are some excerpts from
my journal:
8 January: “The Russians have broken through the unit on my left. Why? The troops
are really worn out, far beyond good or bad. Also, they might not have received clearly the
order that we were supposed to hold at all costs. And finally, you just had to consider what
we had available there—battalions made up of soldiers in leave status, supply clerks, etc.
Despite all that, what we managed to accomplish will remain forever an unforgettable
achievement in the pages of German military history. It has been a battle unlike any other.
I decided to push north on this day to give the unit on my left a little more breathing
space. As usual, the Russians attacked at 0300 hours. Every unit in my sector was holding,
but the Russians kept advancing on my left and were soon into the center of the
operational sectors of the divisions on my flank. Then the immediate counterattack by the
Panzers and the motorcycle infantry took effect. For sixteen kilometers my Panzers
advanced into the enemy’s flank, overrunning everything in their way. My motorcycle
infantry made good progress, but the German division to my front, which actually
consisted of only two reinforced battalions of soldiers in leave status, was screaming for
help. The Russians had gotten really close. My Panzers, however, were positioned on the
far side of a long, steep canyon, and their route of withdrawal was in danger of being cut
off. Reluctantly I decided to recall the regiment. Tomorrow would be a difficult day. I did
not know yet if my Panzer regiment would be able to return intact. They were calling for
fuel. There was also some concern whether or not “Division G” could hold. I had talked to
G1 for about an hour today. He was like a sick horse. He was finished. Even though he
was senior to me, he was asking me for orders. I referred him to his corps commander.
The communications lines to army headquarters had been cut, but I finally got through to
army group headquarters. It is never easy to remain steadfast in such situations. If I could
get my Panzer regiment out of its tight situation, I had hopes of making it through
tomorrow.
9 January: My Panzer regiment made it back safely. Their thrust deep into the Russian
rear had its effect, and they did not budge at all that day. I took advantage of this and
cleared a town in the south that they had taken from one of our disastrous makeshift units.
We destroyed three enemy battalions in the process.
Unfortunately, G got nervous at daybreak and sent out all sorts of doomsday messages
and interfered with my movements. That caused some unfortunate delays, and
consequently I did not get quite as far as I had intended. But the day was still a complete
success. Now the 7th and the 23rd Panzer Divisions were in position to attack the next
morning from the north. For some peculiar reason the Russians were only attacking with
infantry. They apparently had no fuel and serious supply problems, because Stalingrad
was blocking all flow of their supplies.
10 January: The daily situation reports did not accurately describe the situation. On a
forty-kilometer-wide front line three German battalions with a combat strength of 150 men
each were being attacked by a Russian corps. Whenever the Russians broke through,
hastily assembled reserves then overwhelmed and ejected the attackers. Every day it
looked like everything was drowning in the red flood, but by the evenings the Russians
were reeling back, beaten. Here and there individual German troop units failed, which was
not surprising considering that many battalions were made up of bakers and other rear
echelon elements that had no real combat value and were not even capable of supporting
themselves.
As for my own troops, the incomparable Hauser with his 61st Motorcycle Infantry
Battalion was down to only two companies. Attacked by a regiment, he held the enemy
with one company and hit them in the flank with his other company. The Russians fell
back, and Hauser received a well-deserved Iron Cross Knight’s Cross. It is impossible to
reward such troops adequately. When I visited the motorcycle infantrymen everybody was
happy and cheerful. As the situation allowed, I was able to assemble them in the
forwardmost line and thank these faithful men personally. They looked audacious,
unwashed, and unshaved. For days they had been sleeping outside in sub-zero Fahrenheit
temperatures, but they were quite alive and feisty. With such soldiers and officers you
could do anything. Hauser took good care of them. Behind the front he established warmup trucks with iron stoves, and at regular intervals everybody had an opportunity to thaw
out for two hours.
At about the same time the totally exhausted and cut-off 336th Infantry Division got up
and attacked due east. The Russians were pushed back everywhere. Active defense was
our great strength. Without it we would have long since drowned in the red masses.2 It
was about that time that Pannwitz came through my headquarters, as I described earlier,
on his way to Hitler’s headquarters to receive his Knight’s Cross. He had done
magnificently with Romanian troops at Stalingrad.
The Fate of the Caucasus Front
Operations now focused on the control of Rostov. That was the bottleneck through which
our withdrawing Army Group Caucasus had to pass. The Russians were closer to Rostov
than was Army Group Caucasus. Even though some new units had arrived, the covering
force near Rostov that was supposed to screen the withdrawal of Army Group Caucasus
was pretty thin. Our major advantage was that we were still holding at Stalingrad, and that
in turn tied down significant Russian forces and blocked their supply lines. Combined
with our intense strikes, the Russian movement from the Don River Bend toward Rostov
was reduced to a snail’s pace. The situation along the Manych River was different. Strong
Russian forces had penetrated the Manych line and were advancing toward Rostov. On 22
January the 11th Panzer Division reached Rostov and we finally were given a so-called
rest day.
The III Guards Tank Corps
All elements of the 11th Panzer Division crept slowly across the jammed-up Don River
bridges from the European to the Asian side. Together with the 17th Panzer Division and
the 16th Motorized Infantry Division,3 we were to destroy the spearhead of the enemy
attack that was approaching Rostov from across the Manych River. By the time we finally
reached our jump-off positions we had run out of gasoline. I drove up to the lead unit in a
rage. But that, of course, did not get us any fuel. The Fourth Panzer Army urged us to
speed up, but that did not do it either. Everything behind us was hopelessly congested. I
finally allowed the troops to move into quarters and wait for fuel.
The next day, 23 January, matters improved. At 0500 hours we were rolling again. By
0700 hours we had penetrated two Russian positions, along with the 16th Motorized
Infantry Division. When I stopped in my Kübel in the newly taken position, somebody
yelled out, “That Russian there is still alive!” Seconds before the Russian could wreak
havoc with his machine pistol, my quick-witted adjutant jumped him in the snow and took
him out. We continued the attack until we came to a halt in front of Manychskaya. The
Russians were radioing for fuel, reporting that they had only fifteen tanks left.
On 24 January we reached the Manych crossing site at Manychskaya, which was held
by the Russians as a bridgehead. Their tanks were dug in and they held out against our
three attempted attacks. Our troops had long since learned how to fight such battles, and
our losses stayed relatively small. Instead of remaining in their positions, however, the
Russians had a tendency to run away from our tanks and suffered horrific losses under our
fire.
On 25 January I attacked Manychskaya again, using a very carefully developed fire
plan and timeline. To lure the Russian tanks out of their entrenched positions I directed
against another location a substantial and long fire preparation with all available batteries
firing mixed high explosive and smoke rounds. The scout cars, armored personnel carriers,
and trucks then feinted a strong attack in the smoke. Sitting up on a hill I observed how
the dug-in Russian tanks came to life, left their positions, and drove toward the rear of the
position of the ruse attack. Quickly, then, the fires of all available artillery were shifted to
the location of the actual attack. Only one battery continued to fire smoke rounds in the
direction of the feint attack. Then I launched my tanks.
The Russians collapsed. We caught their tanks from the rear, destroying approximately
twenty-two. Their infantry launched a series of senseless counterattacks, and then was
destroyed while retreating. My motorcycle infantry and tanks pursued the fleeing enemy
until late at night. The III Guards Tank Corps had been destroyed. Our losses were one
killed and fourteen wounded. It had been one of those rare actions where I had managed to
control both the enemy and my own troops according to a firm plan. Nonetheless, we
could not quite enjoy this success, even though it was so decisive for the overall situation.
In the evening of that very successful day I wrote in my journal:
“Stalingrad weighs heavily on all of our minds. A heroic fight beyond comparison is
coming to an end there. It remains questionable if we will still be able to extract the
remnants of the Sixth Army. Supplying them is very difficult because they have lost all
their airfields. On the other hand, they continue to block all the Russian lines of
communication and are blunting the force of their southern wing. The question arises if it
would not be better to abandon Stalingrad. I believe extraction would have been possible
if the Italians had held their lines. If the extraction does not succeed, and that is very likely
now, those troops are lost. How many? Nobody knows for sure. They naturally are
exaggerating their reporting numbers for supply accountability, so that the difference of
several tens of thousands is likely. Approximately forty thousand wounded have been
flown out. Many have died. But there are still large numbers remaining. But we must
remain hard during these changing wartime situations. Changing situations have always
existed. However, with million-man armies, the numbers are naturally higher than during
Prussian times.”4
A Rifle Corps
There was no quiet time for anybody, and especially the 11th Panzer Division. On 28
January we were assigned to the LVII Panzer Corps. We absolutely had to hold, as behind
us the First Panzer Army was withdrawing [from the Caucasus] toward Rostov. The
divisions of the LVII Panzer Corps were like islands in a sea of red waves. The likely
encirclement of the LVII Panzer Corps was looming, with the Russian masses approaching
from the flanks and rear. I decided to advance on a broad front of four columns on the
morning of 29 January. I gave the appropriate orders, and sent Kienitz to the corps
headquarters. He had instructions to report to higher headquarters that changes were no
longer possible.
I spent a cozy evening in the small house of a teacher. A clever device fed sunflower
seeds into her stove, filling the room with a comfortable warmth. A balalaika hung on the
wall. It had the most beautiful sound I ever heard. The people and the land here were
different than in the North. The treeless countryside, showing all the contours in an even
more pronounced way, had its own charm, especially when the setting winter sun covered
everything in a violet light.
The inhabitants were not excited about the approaching Reds. We were in the lands of
the Don Cossacks. Everything was clean and refined. Oddly enough, those people did a lot
of painting. Almost every third or fourth house had an amateur painter. They seemed to
concentrate on three primary themes. The most common one was a manor house set in the
middle of a well-kept garden full of flowers. A lady in a formal dress sat in the middle of
the garden feeding the swans, while doves brought her letters or roses. Another theme was
the duck hunter; and the third was the “Bogatyr,” the hero of the ancient legend.5 The
buried soul of a people? Who knows?
As the morning of the 29th broke I drove out to my left column, my Panzer regiment.
When I got out to where they were supposed to assemble, they were not there. The only
thing I found was a sack of straw with a wolf standing next to it. He took off as soon as he
saw me. Finally, after a long delay, I saw a long line of tanks, looking more gigantic than
normally as they emerged from the fog and the snow. Then Schimmelmann drove up in a
staff car. As he got out he reported to me, “Lestmann, as you know, received the Knight’s
Cross yesterday, and they are all still drunk. The two of us will have to lead the advance
party.”
There was nothing we could do about it, so we both drove ahead of the tanks,
crisscrossing and taking turns leading, while the herd of elephants followed faithfully in
our tracks. When after a long march we approached the village of Kamenyi,
Schimmelmann said, “Others can take over now; I think we will be all right.” He was
correct.
As the tanks advanced through the fog and the snow down into Kamenyi, all hell broke
loose. Within ten minutes we had captured thirty-two guns and destroyed a very surprised
antitank brigade. Then the general conflagration broke out all along the front line. The
Panzers and attacking infantry destroyed the Russians, battalion after battalion. By
nightfall we had the remnants of an infantry division and two rifle brigades encircled
southwest of Metschetinskaja.
I spent most of that night making telephone calls. Army headquarters wanted us to
move north, because a new crisis was emerging there. I argued fiercely for cleaning up my
present situation. They finally conceded. On 30 January at 0500 hours we were at the
ready. It turned out to be a successful day. We completely destroyed whatever was facing
us or had already been encircled. The members of the enemy divisional staffs tore off their
rank insignias6 or committed suicide. When in the evening we were able to assess the
results, the 11th Panzer Division had captured the following in two days:
17 antitank guns, 47 mm
81 antitank guns, 76.2 mm
3 field guns 105 mm
4 field guns 120 mm
2 infantry guns
92 antitank rocket launchers
24 infantry mortars
The Russian 248th Rifle Division and two additional rifle brigades had ceased to exist.
We also captured several thousand prisoners and twenty-two camels. We were in Asia and
camels were pulling the guns here. The prisoners included old men and children with little
training.
On 2 February my division was pulled out of the line. “I reported one last time to
General Friedrich Kirchner, the LVII Panzer Corps commander, my old division
commander from the 1st Panzer Division. In those earlier days we had not always gotten
along, and there was still some bad blood between us. But in the current situation it was
more important to focus on our mutual interests and responsibilities. It was a pleasant
meeting.”
Twenty-one years later I received on 3 February 1962 a note from Colonel General
Hermann Hoth, stating, “. . . without the 11th Panzer Division we [Fourth Panzer Army
and First Panzer Army] would not have gotten out.”
It was a difficult war. The Panzer divisions were covering forty- to eighty-kilometer
fronts and had to hold those lines against overwhelming enemy superiority. We managed
because of our superior leadership and high mobility, but it took a toll on our equipment.
After very little maintenance for a period of weeks the vehicles started to malfunction in
large numbers. The resulting horrible surprises made it impossible to be sure that anything
would go according to plan. At the completion of the current operation we were supposed
to receive a period of rest, but the old warrior in me remained skeptical.
Stalingrad
The battle for Stalingrad that had overshadowed everything else came to an end. As I
wrote in my journal at the time, “The heroes of Stalingrad have given their lives to buy the
time necessary to open up the new front.” The German forces at Stalingrad had tied down
the majority of the Russians, blocked their supply lines, and thus established the
conditions to establish the new front line necessary to withdraw our armies from the
Caucasus, and to stabilize the horrible situation that our allies left us in by withdrawing
without much of a fight.7 Was all the sacrifice worth the outcome? This question has been
examined repeatedly, and rarely has it been addressed objectively because of bias and
political orientation.
In the winter of 1941–1942, Hitler’s order to hold in front of Moscow had undoubtedly
saved the German Army. But what had been right then was wrong in late 1942. Hitler had
a tendency to use over and over again any measures that had proved successful once. He
was quite obstinate in this sense. In contrast to the situation of the previous winter, the
problem at Stalingrad could only be resolved at the operational level. The situation then
was a classic model of the type of problem the German General Staff was the master of. It
required only one order: “Field Marshal von Manstein, take charge of the forces from the
Caucasus to Voronezh and reestablish the status quo ante.”
But Hitler could not and would not give such an order. Without doubt the dictator’s fear
of having to stand in the shadow of a successful combat commander had something to do
with it. And within the Nazi Party, Göring and Himmler especially were opposed to any
such course of action.
Since the previous winter, Hitler had been opposed to operational art.8 Mistrusting as
he was, he was afraid that the end result of an operational solution would be withdrawal,
certain defeat, and his own demise. Another key reason was that Hitler saw himself
conducting an economic rather than a military war. He saw the advantage of controlling
the Caucasian oil fields and the Donets Basin, and the disadvantages for Russia if those
resources were lost.
World War I had influenced Hitler’s thinking and his objectives. Back then, when
defensive weapons were stronger than offensive weapons, hold fast orders were feasible,
especially considering that divisional sectors were only three to five kilometers wide. The
same order in the 1940s, when the offensive weapons were superior and the frontline
widths ran from twenty to forty kilometers, was impossible to execute regardless of any
level of leadership expertise and courage of the troops. Russian human waves and massed
tanks swept everything away. Hitler could not accept that reality. Thus, the German
military leadership had its hands tied. But rather than revisit a detailed review of the
events, I want to describe the more fundamental reasons for the disaster as I saw them.
One question remains to be resolved: were the supply operations for Stalingrad
correctly organized? It is not a case of perfect hindsight to state that sufficient fuel,
ammunition, and rations should have been stocked in Stalingrad itself. Such supplies had
no value sitting behind the Chir River. Considering the faulty logistics organization, the
dangerous situation in which we found ourselves at Stalingrad was predictable.
Paulus
Aside from Hitler and Manstein, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus was the third key figure
in this drama. I had known him for several decades. During World War I in the
Alpenkorps he was the adjutant of the 2nd Jäger Regiment, to which my 10th Jäger
Battalion belonged. Paulus generally had no contact with the officers of the subordinate
Jäger battalions. He was overshadowed by the forceful personality of our regimental
commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bronsart von Schellendorf, a typical aristocrat from
Mecklenburg. There was no sign of an independent mind in Paulus. He always had the
exact same opinion as his regimental commander. Bronsart von Schellendorf finally
relieved him for failing to demonstrate the necessary resolve in a tough situation. After
that, Paulus’s career as a General Staff officer on the staff of the Alpenkorps started.
Paulus and I served together in Stuttgart for quite a while between the wars. He was a
company commander in the 13th Infantry Regiment; I was a squadron commander in the
18th Cavalry Regiment. We also spent some time together on several General Staff rides,
and once during a maneuver as escorts for Seeckt. The Paulus I knew in Stuttgart was very
different from the person I had known during the First World War. I came to see him as
smart and highly educated, but also as a shy and sensitive human being. Above all, I
considered him a noble and honest individual. Since our Stuttgart days we ran into each
other frequently at OKH.
Paulus spent almost his entire life serving in staff positions. He never had made a
decision on his own. He just received decisions and then passed on orders to be executed.
He was a typical man in the background, irreplaceable and of the highest quality when led
by a strong hand, as for example by Reichenau. But Paulus was the man who ended up in
a messy situation because of Hitler. It was a situation in which the only thing that counted
was your own inner strength. As the weak man that he was, he remained true to what he
had always done; he presented facts, asked for decisions, and then turned them into orders
for others to execute. Nor had Paulus been properly groomed for command. He moved
from being a chief of staff of an army immediately to army commander. He skipped the
positions of regimental, divisional, and corps commander.
Paulus cannot bear all the blame for Stalingrad. Stronger and tougher soldiers could
well have failed in such chaos. Would the Sixth Army have been able to break out of the
Stalingrad Pocket? To where could it have moved? Reserves that could have relieved the
Sixth Army did not exist. The assembly of the necessary reserves on the opposite bank of
the Don River Bend had been neglected for too long, until there was no longer sufficient
time to do so. The danger in any attempt to break out of an encirclement is that the troops,
or at least a large portion of them, will lose their cohesion, and a mentality of “Save
yourself at all costs!” takes over. In this case, any routed mass of combat ineffective
human beings would have quickly been destroyed by the Russians in the vicinity of
Rostov. I had seen this scenario play out during numerous Russian breakout attempts from
encirclements. I had a good appreciation for the difficulty of such an operation, and what
the proponents of a breakout would be saying after the fact. And what would have become
of Army Group Caucasus?
In the hands of someone like Hoth, the commander of the Fourth Panzer Army, the five
Panzer and three motorized divisions in the vicinity of Stalingrad, even though they were
not at full strength, could have destroyed any Russian attempt at encirclement. Here for
once, the organizational structure was the decisive factor in success or failure. The second
opportunity for a breakout was when Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army attempted a relief attack
and got as close as forty kilometers to Stalingrad. Any breakout attempt at that point, of
course, did run the risk of disintegrating into a panicked rout. In any event, it was never
attempted because supposedly there was only enough fuel in Stalingrad for the tanks to go
another twenty kilometers. Based on my own experience with fuel reports, I think the
tanks could have made it another forty to fifty kilometers. Fuel reports almost always
underestimated, but Paulus apparently accepted the reports at face value, rather than
checking himself.
Be that as it may, no hindsight wisdom can change the fact that inside the pocket
everyone from field marshal9 to the lowest-ranking man did what he could do. Only
someone who has never borne the responsibility of such decisions would cast stones at
these men. We held them all in awe, and even then we knew that they had saved us.
The disasters at Stalingrad and North Africa happened at the same time. The flood was
reversing against Germany. It was a serious warning not to conduct operations beyond
one’s own limits, when secure supply lines and the rapid movement of reserves from far in
the rear to a sudden point of crisis were no longer possible. Both Stalingrad and El
Alamein were far beyond such limits.
The Destruction of Popoff’s Fifth Shock Army
The Situation
Immediately north of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group Don, the Italian
Eighth Army and Hungarian Second Army of Army Group B had withdrawn without
putting up much of a fight. They left their artillery and heavy weapons behind. The troops
threw away their rifles. Some of the staffs just drove off. In short, a huge hole in our lines
opened up all the way to Voronezh, into which the Russians poured without resistance and
cut off Manstein’s army group. A second, much larger “Stalingrad” was looming. Thank
God Manstein had the authority to maneuver more freely and thus thwarted the Russian
shock armies. Manstein managed to develop a contiguous front line along the lower Don
and Donets. Behind this rather fragile shield the army group pulled the First Panzer Army
under General Eberhard von Mackensen out of the Caucasus and to the north, deploying it
against the southern flank of the Red Army, which was advancing in our rear. Meanwhile,
we assembled another force to commit against their northern flank.
Our Allies
During those days we naturally did not think very highly of our allies. Fairness requires
me, however, to explain some matters. I knew all three of them, the Italians, the
Romanians, and the Hungarians, mostly from my frontline experience in World War I. The
impressions I formed then remained generally valid and unaltered. I respected the
Romanians, more than the others. They were courageous, but they did not have modern
equipment. They had too many units, but not enough officers, and even the greatest
amount of courage did not help. Nonetheless, the war still had a certain amount of purpose
for the Romanians.
The Italians were never good soldiers, with the notable exception of certain units like
the Alpini and some Bersaglieri regiments. Napoleon had spoken rather disparagingly
about the Italians. The Russian campaign was for them a misunderstood cabinet war in
which they thought they had no part. Nor were they used to the climatic conditions in
Eastern Europe. None of these factors increased their enthusiasm for the war.
The Hungarians were similar to the Italians in terms of their combat value. The enlisted
soldiers of the Hungarian Second Army were drawn mostly from Hungary’s recently
regained territories. Almost all of them had returned to Hungary reluctantly because of its
misguided Magyarization policies.10 Also, the Hungarian units received rather ambiguous
orders from Miklós Horthy, the regent of Hungary, who played both sides. What were
these troops doing on the Don River? Fighting for a Hungary that they despised? Despite a
lot of goodwill among their officer corps, I always judged the Hungarians as being capable
of fighting only in the Carpathian area, and only against Romanians and Slovaks.
Their liability as a military force was compounded by the fact that all three nations
wanted to fight in their own armies only, and they did not have any modern equipment.
Their respective heads of state who insisted on maintaining their own armies were
ultimately responsible for the deaths and imprisonment of thousands of the poor devils.
Quidquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi.
That we even counted these units as a factor in the correlation of forces can only be
explained by the fact that we were intoxicated by the idea of forty extra divisions and we
totally misjudged the discounted value of their defensive capabilities against modern
weaponry. The attack had become the stronger form of combat, and the three allies could
never stand up to it. It would have been better if they had been formed into regimentalsized units with artillery and engineers and subordinated to individual German divisions.
Used as relief forces or to spell German units in the line, they could have served some
purpose. Or, we should have done without them completely and have based our operations
at a much lower level of risk. In the end, what we did was add several more points of
catastrophic vulnerability to an already overstressed situation. Hitler’s policy had done
substantial damage.
Toward the North
The 11th Panzer Division moved north behind the First Panzer Army. We were to push
north from Kostiantynivka along the western bank of the Krivoy Torets River. The
division advanced painfully northward through miles and miles of workers’ housing areas,
fighting house to house. Our opponent was a unit we knew well from the battle of
Sukhinichi, the III Tank Corps, followed by the IV Guards Tank Corps. Both corps were
worn out. After several days we had managed to fight our way through the twenty-fourkilometer-long line of housing areas. It had all been pure street fighting, during which the
combat took an unfortunate turn. I had attacked before every one of my units was
assembled. I did exactly what I had so often criticized others of doing. The division’s first
failure was my fault.
We approached the industrial town of Kramatorsk, which we failed to seize. Every day
we tried to take it from a different direction. Even though the control of Kramatorsk was
of decisive importance, I avoided getting drawn into street fighting. Considering the
Russian expertise at such fighting, it would have resulted in getting the division tied down
unnecessarily. If an objective like Kramatorsk did not fall to the first attack, or even after
changing the direction of attack, it was better to bypass it.
During those days we were able to determine the enemy’s intention by monitoring his
radio traffic. The Fifth Shock Army was to push southwest and position its corps
according to assigned coordinates. The III Tank Corps had read the coordinates wrong and
had marched southeast instead of southwest, where we defeated it. The III Tank Corps also
dragged the IV Guards Tank Corps behind it and into the maelstrom. Now the army
commander, General Markian Popoff, attacked with extreme force. He managed to extract
the IV Guards Tank Corps and turn them toward the southwest. The X Tank Corps,
meanwhile, was still in Kramatorsk.
Even though the 11th Panzer Division failed to take Kramatorsk with a pincer attack,
we were able to destroy a fast-approaching Russian infantry division and keep the X Tank
Corps and the remnants of the III Tank Corps bottled up inside the city. Almost all of the
enemy’s tanks had been destroyed. The Russians, meanwhile, were still interpreting our
probing attacks as break-out attempts from the encirclement they thought they were
forming around us, while we in fact were encircling them.
I had always argued for bypassing Kramatorsk and advancing south of the city into the
rear of the Fifth Shock Army. Unfortunately, the leadership of the XL Panzer Corps, to
which I was attached, did not concur with that course of action. They believed that we
would not be able to complete the advance because of the deep snow. The Russians too
considered the snow to be an absolutely effective flank protection.
Now the staff of the XL Panzer Corps was moved south around the other side of the
forming encirclement, and I was assigned to the First Panzer Army. I drove to the army
headquarters and presented my estimate of the situation. Mackensen, who never risked a
unit unnecessarily, concurred with my assessment, saying, “With a unit like the 11th
Panzer Division you can take such a risk.” Thus, on 18 January I was able to withdraw my
division from the fight for Kramatorsk, which the Russians took as an indicator that they
were winning.
After commandeering every snowplow I could find, we launched on the morning of the
19th. The plows led the way, driven by an assortment of old rear-area souls. I had an
energetic officer on every plow, followed by motorcycle infantry, then tanks. The division
headquarters followed closely behind the plows. Other snowplows followed to keep the
route of advance open.
After two hours we stood astride the Russian avenue of approach. The enemy was
completely surprised. Initially we only encountered recovery tanks and repair details.
Then we pushed farther south. My Panzers entered the village of Novotroitsk on a broad
front. I parked my Kübel next to Schimmelmann’s tank and then sent my IIa,11 Major
Kaldrack, to ask Schimmelmann to come over and ride forward with me. Kaldrack came
back saying, “Sir, the Graf12 said that there is still heavy fighting going on in the village,
and whether you would not rather join him in his tank.”
“Nonsense, you cannot see anything from a tank. I want Schimmelmann to come with
me.”
Kaldrack came back again, “I am supposed to report from the Graf that if the general
does not behave and come forward with him in his tank, he will not go.”
What else could I do but laugh and jump in Schimmelmann’s tank. The thrust of the
11th Panzer Division meant the end of Popoff’s Fifth Shock Army. Attacked from the rear
and completely surprised, the IV Guards Tank Corps was the first to break apart
completely; the others followed. By the time my division finally pivoted toward the north,
there was no more fighting, only pursuit, during which we passed, cut off, and destroyed
one Russian combat group after another. When we reached the Krivoy Torets River near
Barvenkovo, the Fifth Shock Army had ceased to exist.
Barvenkovo, which was strongly reinforced, fell through an attack into its rear. I let my
15th Panzer Regiment, together with the 7th Panzer Division on its right flank, break
through and take Barvenkovo from behind. The 7th Panzer Division was more than happy
to add my Panzers temporarily to its strength. Rigid and inflexible attack zones should be
avoided in a tank war.
The point of decision now shifted toward Kharkov, and the 11th Panzer Division was
now ordered to that hot spot. Prior to leaving we received an especially warm farewell
memorandum from General von Mackensen:
First Panzer Army
Army HQ, 2 March 1943
Telegraph Message
To the 11th Panzer Division,
Following four weeks of the hardest winter attack operations, the 11th Panzer
Division is assigned follow-on missions and is now released from the operational
control of the First Panzer Army. I greatly regret having to let this outstanding
division and its much proven commander move on. This brave division has
repeatedly in this winter battle added success upon success, fulfilled all of its
missions, and has operated at the peak of its performance capabilities. The division
was committed deliberately by me and its commanding general to the critical points
of the operation. It was, therefore, the soul of the attack of this army, specifically
securing not only the necessary space, but also destroying the enemy forces. The
11th Panzer Division has proven itself repeatedly to be the master of such situations.
It is with great pride that I express my high and grateful appreciation to the division
and wish it and its commander further battle success in the name of the whole
Panzer army. And most especially I personally salute you with the words,
Farewell until we serve together again,
Signed von Mackensen,
General of Cavalry
The Crisis of Trust
The fall of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad naturally had its consequences. Recording the
mood of the times, I wrote in my journal:
8 February: “There is a feeling of numbness. Mechanically we execute order upon
order; but there is an end in sight. The III Tank Corps that we destroyed over the course of
the last three days had nineteen tanks left when the battle started, and only four of those
escaped. Everything else was destroyed. Tomorrow the IV Guards Tank Corps is supposed
to arrive on the scene. It still has thirteen tanks, so the fighting is clearly moving to an end
state. The Russians are running out of the forces to continue operations with any real
punch.”
10 February: “Today Kaldrack came back from OKH. The tension between Hitler and
the generals is quite strong and spread throughout every senior staff section. Paulus had
sent Hitler a last message saying that he should listen more to his military advisors. The
offensive into the Caucasus was an overreach of our strength. The clearest indicator of an
overextension is always that small mistakes become decisive; small mistakes that happen
by the dozen have no consequence as long as your strength is still sufficient.
“We have to play for low stakes for now; but at some point in the future there might be
opportunities to do more again. There is, however, only one right thing to do now, and that
is to stand as one behind our leadership without complaining loudly and destroying trust.
The division of labor between Hitler and the generals will self-correct. Manstein would be
best as commander in chief of the army.”
17 February: “Visiting higher headquarters is not very pleasant right now. All you hear
is constant criticism of our most senior leadership. There may be a lot to criticize, but the
complaining will not improve matters. Our situation is certainly not pretty, but we will
manage if everyone remains positive. That is what we are lacking. It is a shame that there
never developed any real sense of trust between Hitler and the generals. That is the source
of all our ills. It started with the Blomberg Affair and our attitude toward the Nazi Party
and all their reactionary gibberish. Brauchitsch never took a clear stand politically, and he
failed because his own uncertain position robbed him of any credibility with those above
or below him.”
During the previous winter Hitler had saved the army in spite of the generals. But what
was right in the previous winter, stubbornly holding on because the snow made any kind
of operational options impossible, was a major mistake this winter, because operations
were possible in the more favorable snow conditions. Unfortunately, we make those kinds
of mistakes and are therefore always too late and always behind the decision curve. Thus,
the sharp criticism from the generals was justified in this case. The solution that everyone
in the army was looking for was the passing of the command in the East to Manstein. We
could no longer afford to indulge in nonsense.
Ironically, Hitler during the first years of the war always made decisions of great
audacity; but by now he had become hesitant and he only made half-hearted decisions. He
stubbornly insisted on holding gained territory, even when the situation made it necessary
to yield ground. Perhaps he became insecure because deep inside he knew that the limits
of German strength had been pushed beyond the culminating point, but he could not
accept the fact. Regardless of what the answer was, we had reached a critical high point of
our history and of the war.
We underestimated the Russians. In 1942 they intentionally evaded us. No doubt they
did so under our pressure and to a much greater extent than they had intended; but their
counteroffensive was well planned, well prepared, and brilliantly executed. Wisdom post
festum.13 I also underestimated the Russians considerably. Now we had to prepare to fight
on the defensive along the shortest possible line, and pay a high price in the process.
Farewell to the 11th Panzer Division
While in the Kharkov area my reassignment orders to the Leaders Reserve14 caught up
with me. My time as a division commander was over. It was time to say farewell. At such
a juncture it is certainly appropriate to take stock. The first question a soldier must ask
himself is: “Were successes and losses in the right proportion?” During the first part of our
advance on Voronezh we suffered only minor losses. The fighting and the losses in the
Sukhinichi Bend had been heavy, but our losses were far lower than those of the enemy.
The conditions during the current winter were different still. Below are the division’s
statistics for the period between 7 December 1942 and 31 January 1943—in other words,
for the two months from the Chir River until the end of the fighting east of Rostov:
Our losses and breakdowns in motor vehicles had been high. We lost 745 motor vehicles,
of which 450 were being repaired in maintenance shops; and we lost 280 motorcycles, of
which 100 were being repaired.
The enemy’s personnel losses were estimated at 30,700 dead. This high number was
the result of the Russians’ tactics and organization, which consisted of untrained human
waves supported by numerous antitank guns, but with hardly any artillery or any other
heavy weapons, committed in tightly packed formations against our fires or against our
tanks. Added to those killed in action outright were those who later died from wounds.
Were the estimates of the enemy dead correct? I really cannot say for certain. In the
excitement of success troops will always exaggerate these numbers. That is most likely the
case here, too. Our own losses during this period were as follows:
Killed in Action:
215, including 15 officers.
Wounded in Action:
1,019, including 47 officers.
Missing in Action:
155, including 3 officers.
The day I relinquished command, the division destroyed its one thousandth enemy tank
since I had taken command. But here again, there remains that small question mark. The
discrepancy between our own losses and the enemy’s can be explained by the badly
trained Russian units and their lower-level leadership, which was not up to task. They
went up against Graf von Schimmelmann and his tank regiment, one of the most combateffective units I ever encountered. The vastness of the steppes and the lack of follow-on
forces on both sides combined to bring out the natural superiority and the self-reliance of
the German soldier in a way that was not often seen.
The 11th Panzer Division had been formed on 1 August 1940 from the 11th Infantry
Brigade, which originally had been formed on 1 December 1939. The division’s main
units were the 15th Panzer Regiment, and the 110th and 111th Panzergrenadier Regiments.
The division was assigned in December 1940 to the XIV Army Corps (Motorized) as part
of the Twelfth Army of Army Group B in Poland. It served with the Twelfth Army in
Romania and Serbia and then under the XLVIII Panzer Corps in action at Zhytomyr and
Uman. It was part of the Sixth Army for a short while at Kiev. Subsequently, as part of
Panzer Group Four [later renamed Fourth Panzer Army] it pushed as far as Vyazma and a
short distance in front of Moscow. During 1942 it saw action near Gzhatsk [now Gagarin],
Orel, Voronezh, and at the Don and Donets Rivers. From February to June 1943 the 11th
Panzer Division was committed near Kharkov. It then passed through Belgorod, Poltava,
Kremenchuk, Cherkasy, and Chişinău back toward Iaşi. In June of 1944 the division was
transferred to the West, where it served under me when I commanded Army Group G.
But now it was time to say farewell. I managed to visit almost all units one more time
and to thank the troops and the officers. I could with good conscience recommend all of
my regimental commanders for divisional command.
Theodor Graf von Schimmelmann became a general officer in Jutland. His ancestry,
family connections, and language skills particularly suited him for that assignment. I
would have liked to see him as a divisional commander. His leadership abilities were
unique and desperately needed in a longer war. Unfortunately, my successor15 had
problems with his rather bold but fitting sense of humor and his nonchalant manner, which
he also used with his superiors. I never missed a chance to visit with Schimmelmann after
the war.
Albert Henze, the quiet, calm, steadfast commander of the 110th Panzergrenadier
Regiment did become a division commander. He was captured by the Russians in the
Courland Pocket. He remained always upright and courageous and he went through the
inferno as the gentleman that he was, admired by all who were with him.
Paul Graf von Hauser, the commander of the 61st Motorcycle Infantry Battalion,
became as a colonel the last commander of the Panzerlehr Division in April 1945. There
was not a better officer for that assignment. Smart tactically and highly educated, he
combined a strong will, courage, and intellect. He had what Clausewitz called that rare
Harmonie der Kräfte.16 During the capture of Berlin Hauser was reported to have been
shot and killed by the Russians. I saw the detailed reports from the alleged eyewitnesses.
As I write this, however, he is alive and living in Vienna.
Colonel Schmidt was the seasoned commander of my artillery regiment. Together with
his excellent staff, he always knew how to mass fires quickly on the decisive point,
thereby contributing to the success of the division time after time. He did not survive the
war.
Alexander von Bosse, the Baltic-German commander of the 111th Panzergrenadier
Regiment, was Russian-educated with native fluency in Russian as well as in German. He
became the commander of the 1st Cossack Division. Through sheer coincidence, he had
erroneously been declared dead, which prevented him from being handed over by the
English to the Soviets with other Cossack leaders. During my farewell visit with him he
raised his glass and said, “Herr, bleibe bei uns, denn es will Abend werden.”17
It was hard to leave my staff behind. Kienitz, my faithful and proven operations officer
Ia, stayed with the division. He died shortly after the war. Kaldrack, my division adjutant,
was killed defending his home estate in Pomerania. Knorr, the assistant Ia and later the
division adjutant, became a state attorney in Bamberg. How often did he brighten my
serious hours with his sense of humor. My security detail officer was killed as a tank
commander soon after I left. I cannot mention them all, but I must thank them all.
The Leaders Reserve
My tour of duty as a division commander was over. The follow-on assignment to the
Leaders Reserve was intended as a needed time for recuperation. Even generals get worn
out. Also, an officer’s time in the Leaders Reserve was used to evaluate his capability for
assignment to the next higher position.
Upon leaving the eastern front I notified both Manstein and Hitler. Both of them had
the time to see me. Manstein was in the process of analyzing past operational possibilities.
Hitler was in a somewhat plaintive mood, regretfully considering his plans for western
Asia. He talked about economic considerations. It was a repeat of the old tensions that had
existed between Bismarck and the General Staff. As early as 1866, Bismarck was being
called “the Traitor” by the General Staff. But back then when diverging opinions emerged,
the king was the supreme authority who decided at his level. These days the decisions
were not made by an executive council, but rather by a single person, Hitler. And he was
also the personification of the National Socialist Party. The senior ranking statesman
should not have to step down to the levels of army leadership, economic strategy, and
politics. He should be above all of that.
Other than that, Hitler, who had a great deal of respect for the 11th Panzer Division,
was very interested in everything that I had to say about the troops, the enemy, and the
country. I met with him for almost an hour.
At the end of my assignment I received 1,500 Reichsmarks in foreign currency for a
vacation with my wife in Slovakia.18 However, I spent the 1,500 marks one evening in the
fall of 1944 when the 11th Panzer Division was again under my command in Lorraine. We
had a huge party for all the old members of the division who had fought under me in
Russia.
16
The Gross-Deutschland Division
I was just about to depart for Slovakia when I was called off the train. I was assigned to
command one more time, this time in the coming battle for Kursk as acting commander of
the Gross-Deutschland Division. On 4 April I found myself back in southern Russia, in
Poltava. The attack, however, was delayed repeatedly. We spent a quiet time in a beautiful
setting that reminded me of Pomerania and Mecklenburg. I was able to do quite a lot with
the division on training matters. The division surgeon initiated for his physicians a small
frontline medical school that I enjoyed supporting, and without a doubt it contributed to
motivation and the exchange of lessons learned.
The Gross-Deutschland Division had enough equipment for two divisions, much like a
Waffen-SS division. This did not make it more combat effective, but rather more
cumbersome and more difficult to command. The idea was to establish both an army and a
Waffen-SS corps with two to three such divisions each as a reserve for the senior
command level. I was slated to command the army corps and was first to gain some
experience with the Gross-Deutschland Division. I considered the overstuffing of the
division with equipment to be a mistake. The excess was easily destroyed by enemy fire
without increasing the division’s effectiveness, and that excess equipment was then not
available elsewhere. I reported my assessment back to higher headquarters in the clearest
terms, which created considerable trouble, especially with Guderian. Fortunately, the idea
of a super corps remained wishful thinking; but the over-equipping of the division never
stopped.
Thoughts and Conversations
Naturally the quiet days leading up to the battle of Kursk gave me an opportunity for
discussions of all kinds. As I recorded in my journal at the time:
2 May: “Our situation after the winter campaign has stabilized. Russia has been
weakened. Japan may be able to reach a conclusion to its operations in China and then
hold on to what it has elsewhere, but nothing more. A Japanese intervention against Russia
is not possible at this point.
“Our other allies all have all but quit, except the Finns and the Croats. The others at
best can only be used for missions of the third order.1
“Norway and the Atlantic coast are fortified in a manner that will make it difficult for
English operations.2
“The situation in the Balkans is aggravating. The Italians have not been able to stop the
guerilla warfare, tying down strong forces and practically inviting English landings.
“English landings are a question of tonnage and that depends on the outcome of the Uboat war. If we are successful in maintaining the campaign up to the point where the
Anglo-Americans are not able to stage large-scale landings, we can be less concerned
about it.3
“Finally, there are the Allied air attacks on the homeland. They have quite a
demoralizing effect. I see danger there, especially since there is no remedy at this time.4
“What now? The thought that immediately comes to my mind is not to let the Russians
off the hook, not to give them any time to breathe. But there will not be any major German
offensives, because there are no forces available.
“We should have considered countering the Anglo-American operation against Tunis
by cutting off the Mediterranean at Gibraltar. But that chance has been missed, and now
[Spain’s leader Francisco] Franco has become understandably cautious.”
5 May: “Today the commanding general of VIII Aviation Corps, General Martin
Fiebig, visited with me for quite a while. We discussed Stalingrad. He was of the opinion
that Paulus’s leadership had been poor. Fiebig had been inside the pocket quite a few
times. Paulus, a broken man who could no longer make a decision, who always saw the
same problems, did not want to risk anything and thus lost everything. I know Paulus very
well from serving with him in the first war. Nobody then, even when he was still healthy,
could have guessed that he would be an army commander. By 1943 he was suffering from
a stomach illness. Intellect alone cannot compensate.”
6 May: “Italy is not doing at all well domestically. An insider told me that Mussolini
was sick and a broken man. The Italian Army and the people are against the war. Here in
Russia the Italians have openly taken a position against us. In the Gross-Deutschland
Division’s area of operations Italians who had fought with us previously have been found
among dead Russians. Italy is certainly our weakest point. If Mussolini is killed or dies—
they call him the ‘Coal Thief’ now—we have to expect a military dictatorship or efforts to
negotiate a separate peace accord.”
9 May: “The fighting at Tunis is coming to an end. Again, we are losing the best
divisions and irreplaceable personnel. Was that necessary?5
“The Kursk Offensive was postponed again and again. But with reservations, I think
that is the wrong decision. The Russians are getting stronger and stronger, but we are able
to build up at the same pace. We are trying to play it safe. That is quite understandable
after the experiences of 1941 through 1943, but war is only won by the side that acts
decisively. The side that wants to play it safe will lose inevitably. Just look at France.
“During the many meetings leading up to the offensive Manstein was very convincing,
conducting a tactical and operational analysis that could be called classic. It is too bad that
he is not destined for the top.”
27 May: “We have had some trouble with partisans. But the degree of effort and
magnitude of success are not well balanced for the Reds. At night partisans are dropped
into our lines, and during the day we capture them. Some of them are harmless creatures
who are not capable of executing their mission and are just glad that the war is over for
them. Others, however, are fanatics. One group of eight fought us to the end. The last one,
even though wounded, put a hand grenade under his head and pulled the pin.”
On 10 June the actual division commander, General Walter Hörnlein, returned to the
front. I flew home and then spent some unforgettable days in the High Tatras. That was the
last time I was able to enjoy my apartment in Berlin. After I visited my mother in
Wiesbaden, Allied bombs destroyed our home in Berlin.
The Homeland
Naturally, the mood and the situation back home in Germany were extremely interesting.
The common man, firmly led, was the most loyal son of the Fatherland. The reactions of
many people on the day after a bombing raid were exemplary and quite similar to those in
the front lines. It was different, however, with some of our former leading classes. They
still denounced the actions of the Social Democrats—they really meant the independents
and the members of the Spartacus League—during World War I, because in such times the
only thing you could do was to rally in unison behind the government, regardless if you
agreed with it or not. Anything else was considered treason. But now the exact opposite
was true. There was the belief that cooperating with the enemy was acceptable so long as
you were not a member of the government. The role of domestic politics was a major
factor here, and the result was a most unreliable segment of the citizenry. Ironically,
however, the sons of that class of society, regardless whether they were general officers or
lieutenants, fought on with incredible courage.
In my own circles I did whatever I could to neutralize this trend. Ultimately, I owed as
much to the troops who suffered and died in the white hell of Russia without complaining
and with courageous heart. At my club in Berlin I gave an informal talk on the fighting
and the accomplishments of the army. I knew there were gentlemen sitting at my table
who were following a path that I considered wrong. I wanted to clarify that in case of an
attempted coup d’état nobody could count on the armies in the East. As I gathered after
the war from the writings of Ambassador Ulrich von Hassell, he had not understood what
I was talking about.6 Perhaps he was too clever.
Many people in Germany still did not understand the significance that the people and
the workers had gained in recent years. The thinking was that it made no difference to the
people who governed them. A great deal of damage was done by some officers who had
been relieved in the East and who, instead of keeping quiet, loudly claimed that they had
gotten themselves out of the current mess because of their own strength of character.
Nonetheless, many relieved officers did bear their fates with soldierly dignity and
understood that it was better to remain silent.
In every war there are shifts within the officer corps. One cannot blame anybody if the
events become too much for an individual. The transition from a traditional form of
warfare to armored warfare; the tremendous demands made by the vastness of the space in
the East; the Russian winter; and the lack of relief forces were some of many factors of
gigantic proportions. A general in World War I still had to lead from his desk using
telephones, as Schlieffen described it in his little treatise about the modern Alexander.
Since then, wireless communication and motorization created the need for a different type
of general. Not all of them could keep up, especially not the desk warriors and the second
stringers. This completely new and at the same time age-old psychological environment
required the closest communication between the general and the soldier on the battlefield.
The soldier only respects the leader he sees right next to him in battle.
All of that was hard to accept for many otherwise first-rate officers. In their own eyes
they had given their best—and they really had. But it was a typically German reaction that
all these currents flowed into domestic politics. Such would have been impossible with a
king and emperor as the head of state, but with the “Bohemian Corporal”7 it was a
different story. What made the situation worse was that supposedly everyone responsible
for managing the desperate situation in the East was a Hitler-dependent yes-man. That too
was typically German.
To Italy
At Bendler Strasse8 General Rudolf Schmundt briefed me on my new interim mission. I
was supposed to replace General Hans Hube as the commanding general of XIV Panzer
Corps while he was on a four-week leave. The corps was positioned near Naples. So far so
good, then came the clincher. “Hitler sends you the following message: ‘All military and
civilian directorates in Italy are misinterpreting the situation in Italy. Italy is not—as they
believe—a faithful ally, but is preparing to defect. Italy will do so combined with an attack
on all German troops and staffs. It is your mission to take over command of all available
German troops in the event of the loss of your next higher level of command and,
disregarding any previously made deals, act to stabilize the situation. There will not be
another Stalingrad or Tunis in Italy. [In the event that Italy defects] you have complete
freedom to act. You are not authorized to disclose to anybody this special mission, and it is
therefore only issued to you orally.’”
While I was still trying to figure out if I needed to ask more questions and get further
clarification, Schmundt hit me with a question from Hitler:
“Do you believe that the offensive near Kursk will be successful?”
Still trying to come to terms with my new orders, I answered with a counter question,
“Why should it not succeed? So far, every well-prepared attack has succeeded.”
Afterward, I blamed myself very much, and still do so to this day. What I should have
said was, “Do not attempt this offensive. Both sides have their cards on the table much too
openly.” Would that answer have changed the decision to attack at Kursk? There is no way
of telling.
On 2 September, after a flight over the old battlefields of 1917 on the southern slopes
of the Alps, I landed in Rome and reported to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in Frascati.
The mission of the XIV Panzer Corps was to prevent enemy landings in the Gaeta–
Paestum zone. Hube handed off the corps to me on a country road where our paths
crossed. The corps staff was located inside a small forest of chestnut trees. The Allied air
superiority was clear and it determined all of our actions.
The corps chief of staff was Colonel von Bonin, with whom I worked well on a
personal as well as on an official level. Unfortunately, like almost all senior officers in
Italy, he was still depressed by our defeat in Tunisia and our futile defense of Sicily. Even
though the evacuation of German forces from Sicily, in which Bonin played a key role,
had been a masterful operation in terms of leadership, there was still too much of a
tendency to overestimate the Anglo-Americans and correspondingly to underestimate our
own capabilities. Additionally, there was a strong antipathy toward Kesselring’s
leadership. I was never quite able to figure out why. Objectively, the only criticism that
could be leveled against him was that he had not dispersed our air forces at the right time.
Our aircraft in Sicily had been operating on airfields as if in peacetime, and as a result
many aircraft were needlessly destroyed.9 I could never confirm the reservations against
Kesselring. On the contrary, the old, lingering antagonism between Kesselring and
Rommel may have had much to do with it.10
Between 3 and 5 September I visited the corps’ subordinate divisions, the 16th Panzer
Division, the Hermann Göring Division,11 and the 15th Panzergrenadier Division.
Unfortunately, the divisions consisted mostly of recruits. Meanwhile, we made all the
preparations necessary to take over immediately all the Italian coastal batteries in our
sector. Pompeii was nearby, but at the time we had better ruins in Germany. The ancient
Greek temples at Paestum came close to the harmony of dimensions of the Parthenon, or
possibly even surpassed it. I ordered the artillery to modify its deployment so that the
temples there were not in the line of fire.12
On 5 September I intended to fly out to the 16th Panzer Division one more time. The
pilot, however, was not able to lift the Storch13 off from the short airfield. He crashed the
aircraft into a stand of poplars at the end of the field. Typically, the pilot was unharmed,
but I broke every rib in my body. The Luftwaffe had been more than negligent in
assigning to a corps commander a Storch that had engine problems and a pilot, as I later
found out, who clearly did not know his trade. Banged up as I was, I hoped to be back in
action after a few days, and thus I hung onto command.
The attitude of the Italians was mixed on 7 September. One Italian captain of the
General Staff approached us and reported that they would turn against us in the event of
Allied landings. Most Italians at that point just wanted peace, and the army generally
blamed Mussolini for starting the war totally unprepared. At that time, however, there
were still strong Fascist elements in the army and among the people that were pushing the
war. But there were also strong communist elements among the Italians. Just within the
last year Neapolitan troops in Russia had greeted Russian prisoners of war that were led
through by one of our units with rousing yells of “Camerati sowietici.”
In general, however, the attitude of the Italian people was not unfriendly. Aside from
some isolated acts of sabotage, there were also many indicators of honest cooperation and
shame over the poor conduct of their troops. In Sicily the Italians had not fired a single
aimed shot.14 On 8 September our aerial reconnaissance reported heavy Allied
concentrations departing from Palermo and Bizerte. Their entire landing fleet was waiting
out of sight of the coast, in front of the Gulf of Salerno.
Betrayal
9 September. The church bells were ringing. Italy had declared an armistice, which
actually was militarily insignificant. They already had stopped fighting. Thank God all the
necessary preparations had been made so that I could keep my special mission orders to
myself. The operation to disarm the Italians started while the Allied landings near Salerno
and Paestum were under way.
The Italian troops for the most part were happy. Unfortunately, General Ferrante
Gonzaga, commander of the 222nd Coastal Division, and two regimental commanders
were shot and killed during the operation. When the order to disarm was handed to Prince
Gonzaga, he pulled his gun. The gesture was interpreted as a hostile act by the German
security detail. Possibly the prince had no intention of shooting when the officer handed
him the order to disarm. Perhaps he was simply making a Mediterranean gesture, but it
was one that was beyond the comprehension of the security detail. Because the prince was
a nephew of the pope, the Vatican asked for more details. I insisted that we respond with
complete, total openness. The facts of the case were objective. The Vatican did not at all
make any accusations and accepted the answer. Any attempt at a cover-up to make it look
like an accident would have led ultimately to a loss of credibility.
During the disarmament operation one Italian officer told us that he could only hand
over his battery once he had fired it. “Why don’t you aim 50 meters to the right and fire
into the air?” He did that and then surrendered his battery. Another battery commander
shot himself. His people cried and wailed for him, and started a huge lament. Then they
happily dispersed. They could not even be induced to bury the corpse. Within just a few
hours the disarmament operation was over. We used hardly any combat troops, even
though the Italians outnumbered us by a large margin.
The Big Picture
The German Perspective: Although we had expected Italy to defect, we were still
uncertain how that would affect things. Considering the heavy sacrifices that Germany had
made for Italy, we hoped it would be done in the least damaging manner; but we were also
prepared for the worst case. We anticipated the Allied attack. On 3 September they already
had crossed the Strait of Messina to land on the mainland in the south. We also were
certain they would conduct a second landing farther up the peninsula, most probably
around Naples.
The Italian Perspective: The preparations to switch sides were made with great deceit
and disloyalty. The Italians presented their German allies with a web of lies filled with
words of honor. They hoped that the German troops could either be disarmed or at least
isolated to the point that an organized resistance was no longer possible and that they
would become easy prey for the Anglo-Americans. In so doing, the Italians hoped to
present themselves as equal partners to the other side. The extent to which the Italians
overestimated the price of their treason was betrayed by the demand of General Rizzio, the
commanding general of the Italian Seventh Army, to assume command of the AngloAmerican forces.
The Allied Perspective: The Allies rated German combat effectiveness very highly, but
they also firmly believed that the Italians would fight on the Allied side. During a meeting
of the Allied commanders on 23 August, however, British general Bernard Montgomery
declared that he considered Italian cooperation to be a complete hoax. The Italians, he
said, would not fight; and even if they did, they would suffer a decisive defeat. Thus, the
Allied plan called for Montgomery’s British Eighth Army to land with its V Corps at
Taranto and Bari on 9 September and advance toward the north along the eastern coast of
the boot, while the British XIII Corps would cross the Strait of Messina on 3 September
and march along the western edge of the boot toward Naples. The U.S. Fifth Army would
land in the Bay of Salerno on 9 September.15
The Distribution of German Forces
The German forces in central and southern Italy came under the Tenth Army, subordinate
to Field Marshal Kesselring’s Army Group C. The Tenth Army’s lead units were my XIV
Panzer Corps near Naples, the LXXVI Panzer Corps facing the British XIII Corps, and the
1st Parachute Division near Taranto. We also had a strong group of two divisions deployed
near Rome, and one Panzergrenadier division and one Waffen-SS brigade in Corsica and
Sardinia. In northern Italy Rommel’s Army Group B had six infantry divisions, two
Panzer divisions, and one mountain brigade. Both army groups reported directly to OKW,
which made unity of command and concentration of forces in Italy impossible.16
The Battle of Salerno
While the disarmament operation against the Italians had gone smoothly, the American VI
Corps was landing near Paestum and the British X Corps near Salerno. The 16th Panzer
Division was engaged in heavy fighting. It suffered heavily under Allied naval gunfire,
with which we had nothing to counter. I credited one further factor to the success of the
landings. Without my knowledge loudspeakers had been set up on every base in the
coastal zone, with which the Americans were urged to surrender. Naturally they did not do
that. No reasonable human being should have expected such. This foolishness gave the
Americans time to cross our kill zones without encountering any resistance.
“I do not want to know about battlefield commanders who want to win without spilling
blood,” Clausewitz had written.17 Some all too clever people had wanted to resolve
without a fight a situation that could only be resolved by a fight. Not a single senior officer
intervened. I only learned of it much later. In his memoirs the American commander,
General Mark Clark, noted the incident and was quite amused by it.
By the evening of 9 September the English at Salerno and the Americans at Paestum
had managed to establish a large enough beachhead, although there was a large gap
between the two Allied positions. By the following day it was clear to us that there would
be no further landings at any other coastal sector. My corps could now be committed to the
counterattack. The Hermann Göring Panzer Division advanced toward Salerno, where its
attack made reasonable progress. The 16th Panzer Division was set to thrust into the left
flank of the Americans, and it was given everything that could be shifted from the 15th
Panzergrenadier Division.18 The 15th Panzergrenadier Division was left holding its sector
with only a skeleton observation force. The Tenth Army, meanwhile, prepared to launch
the LXXVI Panzer Corps against the right flank of the Americans, spearheaded by the
29th Panzergrenadier Division. Our most dangerous adversary at that point was the
enemy’s naval gunfire.
On 11 September our initial actions started to show results. The thrust against the
American left flank into the gap between the Americans and the English hit their weakest
spot, as we had intended. A 170 mm field gun battery concentrated its fire on the enemy
warships, and hit one of the American cruisers.19 Unfortunately, the battery only had sixty
rounds. The remainder of its basic load of ammunition had been left behind at Regio. A
Luftwaffe convoy was supposed to bring it forward later, but they ignored the orders of
senior army officers.
12 September brought us some considerable success. I was back to normal enough that
I was able to visit the front line, although in considerable pain. The 16th Panzer Division
seized Montecorvino, Battiplagia, Pesano, and Altavilla. The Hermann Göring Panzer
Division pushed the English forces almost back to the edge of Salerno. On the American
side General Clark faced the possibility of being pushed back into the sea, and for a time
he seriously considered destroying all of the supplies that had been landed.
On 13 September we received reports that the LXXVI Panzer Corps had pushed the
enemy back and was starting the pursuit. That information, however, turned out to be
incorrect. A liaison officer sent to the LXXVI Panzer Corps was shot up by enemy fighter
planes. Further radio traffic from Tenth Army headquarters reported that the Americans
were preparing to reembark on their ships. On the American side the crisis had reached its
peak. The commander of the U.S. VI Corps, General Ernest Dawley, reported that his lines
had been penetrated and he did not have any more reserves. Upon Clark’s question what
he could do, he answered, “All I’ve got is a prayer.”20
Clark assessed his own situation as being completely at our mercy. With everything he
could muster from all sources, to include quick reaction units and his two military bands,
he was finally able to stop our armored thrust three kilometers away from his army
headquarters. In the evening of 13 September Clark assessed the results of the day: “We
narrowly escaped disaster.”21
Both sides were looking to the south with anticipation. Clark was expecting
Montgomery and his XIII Corps, and I was anxiously awaiting the 29th Panzergrenadier
Division. On 14 and 15 September we had more significant successes, but not enough to
reach the point of decision. On 16 September we finally had to abort the fighting because
the British Eighth Army coming up from the south had reached our left flank.
The final results were not at all satisfactory. My XIV Panzer Corps believed it had
fought well. Without concern for its flank and rear security, the corps had thrown all
available forces against the enemy’s weakest point, the gap between the English and the
Americans. Could we have won if it had been possible to bring forward the LXXVI
Panzer Corps in whole or even partially? I cannot judge. We certainly could have won if
OKW—meaning Hitler—had decided to commit the many divisions that were sitting idly
in northern Italy. A successful defensive operation against the three widely scattered and
unsynchronized allied landing forces would have been in the realm of the possible. The
consequences could have been far reaching.
But Hitler at that point was having a hard time bringing himself to making complete
decisions. He also always gave two elements the same task. Divide et impera!—Divide
and rule! That, of course, was total nonsense in the realm of military operations. The
matching of the right individuals to the tasks at hand was never the strength of our
personnel policies, and we often paid the price for it.
The Italians
Even though we completed the disarmament operation within a few days, there were quite
a few incidents after that. Cables were cut, the staff of the Hermann Göring Division was
raided, and similar incidents. But we always reacted immediately and decisively. The
Italians continued to secure our telephone lines, and the clergy, some of whom had called
for the expulsion of the Germans, were now urging the exercise of Christian patience. I
was constantly reminded of the expeditions to Rome by the various German Kaisers
throughout history.22 The Italians always cowered before the armies of German knights,
but dragged out the situation through negotiations until malaria broke out in the German
army. Then they struck. But the minute the situation turned against the Italians, they pulled
their claws back in and the soft paws came out. In the Italian cities at the same time,
Swabian bureaucrats acting as proconsuls for the Hohenstaufens continued managing the
local affairs calmly, objectively, and firmly.23
Just as in medieval times, Colonel Scholl, in whose veins the blood of the
Hohenstaufen ministers flowed, was the German commandant in Naples. And just like his
forefathers, he controlled Naples calmly, objectively, and firmly. He never deviated from
the necessary objectives. He was capable of handling all of the political intrigues with his
direct and straightforward Swabian attitude. Scholl was a Rittmeister in the 18th Cavalry
Regiment when I was a lieutenant. We had never actually been friends, and now with him
subordinate to me our meeting in Naples was somewhat reserved. We both must have
thought, “My goodness, not him again.”
I saw immediately that Scholl during his years serving in Naples had developed such
knowledge of the place and the people that he was able to balance the military necessities
against the justifiable wishes of the civilian population. Two days after our first meeting I
told him, “What is important to me is that we do not end up with a popular uprising here
in Naples, and that you maintain the situation until the decisive moment. If you consider
orders and directives as not achievable, then execute whatever you consider to be right. I
will cover everything you do.”
In order to support Scholl and to impress the Neapolitans with our combat power, all
damaged tanks and the wounded were moved around (rather than through) Naples.
Prisoners, however, we moved directly through the city, sometimes more than once.
Refurbished tanks and replacements moved through Naples to the front lines.
One of our main challenges was supplying Naples. As long as the Neapolitans had
enough to eat, there was no partisan war. But if they started to go hungry, they would
become roaring lions. I directed the procurement of foodstuffs in northern Italy and had
them brought down with our own convoys. The supplies were then sold in Naples,
because we needed the money to pay for everything. My very capable and decisive corps
finance officer immediately and without asking a lot of questions agreed to issue bonds for
several million Reichsmarks. It made more sense to me to sell rather than distribute the
supplies. In free distribution operations the largest quantity of the supplies quickly
dissipates or winds up on the black market. Frequently changing the sellers was also a
good idea. This sort of market-based regulation kept the prices down.
Scholl will forever remain a prime example of Clausewitz’s harmonious union of
strengths. Anybody with a single-track mentality would have failed here. I checked the
markets several times personally to ensure that the system was working. I always moved
among the people accompanied only by a translator. I always was received in a friendly
way and never had the feeling that I was in a hostile environment. I had made it clear to
the populace, however, that the supply of food would automatically stop with the smallest
hostile act.
The other major challenge was the destruction of Naples’s entire infrastructure that
could be used to support military operations. We were planning to withdraw from Naples
in due time, and it was important to prevent the city’s harbors and industrial facilities from
falling into the enemy’s hands. OKW demanded a complete inventory of everything in the
city that was militarily useful, and it also required a daily report of what had been
destroyed. Eventually we managed to destroy everything that could have been of any use
to the Allies. That action influenced considerably the course of the coming operations and
bought us a considerable time advantage to prepare for the Battle of Cassino.
There was an effort to transfer to northern Italy all of the civilian population that was fit
for work, but I stopped that operation after only twenty-four hours. It was an impractical
task to begin with, and it would only create the conditions for partisan warfare, which we
could do without. On the other hand, we were ordered to send all war-essential raw
materials back to Germany. A flood of rear echelon staffers of all kinds descended upon
Naples. Keeping these people at bay was more than difficult, but Scholl managed
everything with a firm hand. Rear echelon elements that had arrived with specific special
recovery missions dissolved upon their arrival in Naples. They started plundering, and
could only be brought back under control with great difficulty. Finally, I started to press
these people into combat service and send them off to the front lines. That helped
somewhat, even if I greatly overreached my authority. I always responded to complaints
from the senior directorates with, “Just talk to Hitler about it.”
Among the string of visitors to Naples was a delegate from Himmler who had the
mission of recovering the remains of Conradin von Hohenstaufen.24 At least the man did
not cause any damage and so I let him do his job. He returned the remains safely back to
the Hohenstaufen castle in Swabia.
Some of the fascist elements in Naples wanted to raise a volunteer division to fight the
Allies. In a city of more than 1 million, 156 men volunteered. They all disappeared as
soon as they were told to guard a coastal sector in a harmless place. Thus, I was more than
happy when we withdrew from Naples and established our main line of resistance north of
the city. We managed to do that with no enemy interference. The Anglo-Americans tried
to prevent the destruction of the port of Naples by appealing directly to the population.
One propaganda leaflet read: “A ship with food supplies is moored and ready in the port of
Salerno. It will arrive immediately as soon as the Germans withdraw from Naples. More
will follow as soon as they can be unloaded in the harbor. Therefore, prevent its
destruction. Your time of suffering will be over as soon as the port is operating again.”
The ground units of the Luftwaffe and navy were a problem. Naples for them was what
Capua had been for Hannibal.25 During the evacuation of the city much valuable
equipment was senselessly and unnecessarily destroyed, while the superfluous items that
only served individual comforts were carried along. Much of this can be attributed to the
fact that the infantry training of these Luftwaffe and navy ground troops had been
completely inadequate. They had barely progressed beyond learning how to salute and
now they were thrown into a combat environment that they were not prepared for.
During the early 1960s many of us who had served in Naples during the period of the
evacuation met during a German film industry-sponsored critique of the 1962 Italian
movie The Four Days of Naples.26 It was a pure piece of communist propaganda that had
very little to do with reality. Nothing in the film came close to the truth. Initially the movie
had not been released in Germany, because of its distortions of the truth. When it was
finally released in Germany it was unsuccessful. Undoubtedly, the required trailer stating
that it was not historically accurate had something to do with its poor reception.
Withdrawal to the Winter Line
After we broke off the Battle of Salerno on 16 September we withdrew without pressure
back to the Winter Line, which ran from Gaeta to Lanciano.27 The enemy followed very
hesitatingly. Clark’s Fifth Army had been hit hard at Salerno and Montgomery’s Eighth
Army had been pulled into the eastern side of the boot. Their extreme caution made it
almost impossible for us to conduct counterattacks. It was very hard to lure them into a
trap. We were not at all impressed by the enemy. Our recruits were far superior to the
older and well-trained British and American battalions. It was interesting to hear what the
POWs had to say. Typical comments included: “We do not know why we are fighting
against Germany. The war will be over in the fall and then we have to fight against Russia
and Japan. It is nonsense. So, why should we even try hard?”
Some Americans said that this war was senseless and that the main enemy was Japan.
“England pulled us into this war in Europe. Maybe the Germans will fight with us against
Russia.” The war was not popular with the Anglo-Americans. This was evident in the way
their infantry operated.
When we confronted the English POWs with the air war against the German civilian
population and told them about Hamburg, they often flew into a rage and declared that that
was an incredulous lie. No Englishman would accept such a vicious conduct of a war.28
The enemy air forces were a very difficult problem. As long as we were still fighting at
Salerno their airfields were on Sicily. But as they established closer airfields on the Italian
mainland their effective combat radius increased accordingly. It was very hard to work
with the FLAK29 units, which were part of the Luftwaffe. I had directed a FLAK battalion
to secure a bridge across the Volturno River. The bridge was critical for our rearward
movement. They, of course, did not do this and the bridge was destroyed by an Allied air
attack. The Luftwaffe hesitated to court-martial the battalion commander. They only did so
after I delivered an ultimatum that I would put him on trial in front of an army court that
would be flown in from northern Italy, and I would make sure that the battalion
commander received an adequate prison term. Göring did everything he possibly could to
make things difficult.
There were some bright moments. My corps sector had been extended into the
Apennine Mountains. I had one battalion and one battery positioned there on my extreme
left flank. I drove out there to ensure that everything was going smoothly. Along the
approach route, which the battalion was supposed to block, I ran into the battery, but the
officers were gone. The officers supposedly were conducting a reconnaissance forward. I
drove on, but still found no trace of the battalion. Nobody was at the position where the
battalion headquarters was supposed to be. No one was along the designated main line of
resistance. The forward observation posts were nowhere in sight. Where were all these
people? Thinking they were perhaps farther forward, I jumped from hill to hill. Before
every leap, however, I searched the terrain. Running into the competition was a definite
possibility.
Finally, after my third leap forward, I saw a soldier with a large group of mules under a
chestnut tree in the valley to my front. Judging from the shape of his steel helmet, he was
without a doubt a German soldier. So we headed toward him. The soldier stepped into the
middle of the road and signaled for us to halt. When we did so he stepped next to my
vehicle and reported: “Obergefreiter30 Müller, X Company, X Panzergrenadier Regiment.
I have the mission to stop all asses here and collect them under the chestnut tree.” When I
asked him whether I too would have to stand under the chestnut tree, he was a little
stunned. As it turned out, the battalion had occupied a position a little forward into the
mountains and was collecting pack animals on the road to move its supplies forward.
On 8 October I handed command of the corps back to General Hube. It had been an
interesting if not all that satisfying temporary assignment. But it could have been a most
successful campaign with far-reaching consequences. First-rate leaders who had proven
themselves on the eastern front were plentifully available. But it was our flawed personnel
policies that brought together Kesselring and Rommel in the same theater, where they
never should have been. Having them both reporting directly to OKW only exacerbated
the command problems in Italy.31 It was utter nonsense.
On the other hand, nobody had interfered with the way I commanded the corps. There
had been no explicit or implicit directives from Hitler. At all times I had total freedom of
action, forward as well as rearward. Hitler only got directly involved in the destruction
operations in Naples, which did not especially concern me.
In the course of the fighting we had developed a detailed map of the enemy’s bombing
operations. From it we were able to detect the patterns to his operations that clearly
betrayed his intentions. Comparing this intelligence picture with the information broadcast
by the enemy’s journalists—usually twenty-four hours too early—we were able to develop
a good picture of the enemy’s situation and intentions and initiate the appropriate
countermeasures.
Our betrayal by the Italians naturally colored our attitudes toward the country and the
people. Nobody expected the Italians to carry out German policies. The interest of its own
people is any government’s top priority. But they could have done so with a certain sense
of decency, and that was just not there. For the second time in just a few decades Italy had
broken a treaty with its allies.32 One should keep this in mind when it comes to future
cooperation.33 On 22 September I noted in my journal about Mussolini’s new government:
“Mussolini is now just a straw man. In any case, no one pays notice to any of his
actions.”34 The Vatican, on the other hand, was considered pro-German and was making
every effort toward peace.35
On 9 October I flew back across the Alps. Originally we had been scheduled to fly only
to northern Italy because of the weather, but once in flight we were redirected to Prien,
near Munich. During the flight across the Alps we had to put on parachutes. A nice
Luftwaffe Gefreiter36 explained how they worked and got me into one, “. . . and then
when you, Sir, are far enough from the airplane, you forcefully hit this button with your
fist. Like this… .”
Demonstrating the required intensity of the hit, his fist slammed into my recently
healed ribs and almost broke them again.
Back to the East, 1943
Several beautiful days followed my return to Germany. After our home in Berlin had been
bombed out my family found new accommodations in Silesia, in Wildschütz (now Vlčice)
near Breslau-Oels (now Wrocław Oleśnica), where we lived in the castle of Count Pfeil. I
welcomed the peace and quiet of country life. The old 22nd Jägers, a company of which I
had commanded on the eastern front in 1915–1916, put on a nice evening for us in
Breslau.
In the middle of November it was time again. I was assigned as the commanding
general of the XL Panzer Corps that was holding a bridgehead near Nikopol with two
general commands and twelve divisions. I flew first to Field Marshal von Manstein’s army
group headquarters. After dinner Manstein told me, “I have just spoken on the phone with
Schmundt.37 You will take command of the XLVIII Panzer Corps near Kiev. That’s where
the point of decision will be and that’s where I need the best Panzer leader.”
Zhytomyr
On 14 November I took over my new corps. The corps chief of staff was Colonel
Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin, whom I knew from the Chir River battles. It was an
extremely “happy marriage,” which I now continued with this outstanding General Staff
officer.38 On the Chir we had always communicated efficiently and without a lot of words.
Now, after a short meeting every morning, sometimes with only a quick pointing at the
map, we were in synch for the rest of the day.
Never during our years of cooperation was there as much as the smallest disagreement
between us. We also agreed on the principle of the minimum necessary staff work. We
never burdened the troops with a lot of paperwork. We made maximum use of verbal
operations orders.39 We often took turns in visiting the front lines, because a chief of staff
can only function if he maintains the closest possible contact with the people in the
trenches and he knows the terrain.
The Russians had broken through near Kiev and were advancing in a westerly
direction, capturing Zhytomyr in the process. The mass of Army Group South was
positioned on the Dnieper River. The XLVIII Panzer Corps held the left flank in a
defensive position oriented north. The corps consisted of the 1st and 25th Panzer
Divisions and the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions.40 Our mission was to retake Zhytomyr
from the east, then turn around and take Kiev. The operational plan was written by
Colonel General Hermann Hoth, commander of the Fourth Panzer Army. I knew him well
from the fighting around Stalingrad. He was one of our most capable Panzer commanders.
I did not like, however, the way the operations order read. I wanted to thrust toward
Kiev immediately with everything we had, bypassing Zhytomyr, which would then fall on
its own. By attacking Zhytomyr first, we would lose time, and the Russians could use that
time to bring up more forces to organize a bridgehead at Kiev, which would then be harder
to take. Unfortunately, I was not able to get my assessment across.
Map 9. The Kiev Salient, November–December 1943. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
We tightly concentrated all forces within the corps and formed the main effort with the
1st Panzer Division and 1st SS Panzer Division. The attack by these two first-rate and
fully equipped divisions on 16 November thrust into the left flank of the Russians as they
were advancing to the west. The Panzers cut down everything in front of them. On the
morning of 17 November we reached the attack route Kiev–Zhytomyr, and I turned the 1st
Panzer Division toward Zhytomyr. On my left flank the 7th Panzer Division under the
brilliant General Hasso von Manteuffel and the very good 69th Infantry Division moved
forward. Zhytomyr fell to the concentric attack of these three divisions on the night of 18–
19 November.
During that night I had sent Mellenthin to the 1st Panzer Division to order it to turn
toward the east immediately, to make sure that we did not waste a second. The first part of
the operation was successful. Unfortunately, we lost five days in the process. But one
advantage was that in Zhytomyr we found our own well-stocked supply depots untouched.
We destroyed two Soviet divisions in Zhytomyr and three more in the Konstytchev Forest.
Old Acquaintances
Some of my subordinate units were no strangers to me. During the 1940 campaign in the
West I had been the commander of the 1st Panzer Division’s 1st Infantry Regiment. I was
able to greet by name quite a number of old acquaintances among the enlisted troops. The
current regimental commander was Lieutenant Colonel von Seydlitz, who in France had
been a senior lieutenant and company commander under me. But such moments brought
home to me the unbelievable levels of attrition we had experienced. Very few officers of
the old cadre were still with the unit; many of them had been killed. Major Feig, with
whom I visited, was just minutes later stabbed in the back and killed by a Russian POW
he was in the process of interrogating.
The 1st Panzer Division was now commanded by Lieutenant General Walter Krüger,
who previously had been my brigade commander. It was not a very comfortable situation,
but thanks to a mutual sense of professionalism and the fact that Krüger commanded the
division well, it did not cause any problems.
Also assigned to my corps was the 25th Panzer Division. Its commander had been my
last peacetime superior, General Adolf von Schell. He stood up the division in Norway in
May 1941. Thanks to his connections the unit was well equipped, but the commander and
the troops were not used to combat and not yet fully trained. Deployed by the high
command to the eastern front in October 1943, the division was thrown hastily into the
fight to hold Zhytomyr. There the division was destroyed piece by piece, losing most of its
equipment in the process. The troops had lost all confidence and their inner strength, and
the unit had to be disbanded. One of my first official duties was to provide an official
report about the disaster of the 25th Panzer Division and my old superior, to whom I owed
so much and who I admired deeply. In the process of the fighting Schell had become
critically ill and developed almost total blindness, so thank God no one could make him
bear all the blame for the division’s failure.
It is impossible to take a freshly stood-up division that does not have any combat
experience, has not completed its training, and is under a commander who also does not
have combat experience and throw that unit into the decisive point of a critical fight. It
would have been better to reconstitute two or three old combat-proven divisions with the
fresh troops, officers, weapons, and equipment. The 3rd, 8th, and 19th Panzer Divisions,
which were all attached to my corps a few days later, could have been the decisive factor
had they been so reconstituted and then committed.
Another reason for the poor decision to commit the 25th Panzer Division was the fact
that we no longer had an army commander in chief who had things firmly under control.
Hitler was too overextended to do the job effectively. Consequently, too many issues were
resolved through mutual agreements and because of personal relationships instead of one
person in charge issuing clear, unambiguous, and objective orders.
There was another lesson to be learned here. No senior officer should assume command
without first having been thoroughly examined by an independent medical panel. Hitler
was justifiably upset that the medical officers had certified Schell as completely combat
ready. His glaucoma and resulting blindness was a decisive factor in the division’s
catastrophic failure. He had a history of vision problems, but unfortunately the medics
cleared him for duty.
Brusilov
The Russians took advantage of the five lost days by assembling a strong concentration of
forces near Brusilov. On 17 and 18 November the I Guards Cavalry Corps and V and VII
Guards Tank Corps hit our right flank with eight separate attacks near Kotcherovo and
four at Brusilov, but they failed to accomplish anything. The destruction of that force was
a precondition for our own thrust toward Kiev. After I received three additional divisions
we were able to conduct a double envelopment pincer attack. I put the 19th Panzer
Division on my right wing and the 1st SS Panzer Division in the middle. In the north I put
the 1st Panzer Division, whose left flank was screened by the 7th Panzer Division.
On 20 November we moved out. The Fourth Panzer Army initially wanted me to
postpone the attack for one day in order to prepare better. In the end, my insistence on
attacking immediately prevailed. One of the advantages of armored warfare is that
preparations can be greatly minimized. The fighting was difficult, but the advance went
well on both flanks. The not yet reconstituted 7th and 19th Panzer Divisions were both
only as strong as a weak battle group, but were commanded very well by Generals
Manteuffel and Hans Källner. Both divisions achieved decisive success. What could they
have accomplished with the senselessly wasted personnel and equipment of the 25th
Panzer Division? In the middle, the 1st SS Panzer Division’s attack against a much
superior enemy force failed to make headway. They reported in a radio message: “For the
first time an attack by the Leibstandarte has failed. Morale is down.”
Tensions built up. The Fourth Panzer Army wanted to cancel the attack because they
did not believe it could succeed. The 19th and 1st Panzer Divisions had not exploited their
success and had stopped moving. With a great deal of effort the attack regained some
momentum in the afternoon, only to come to a halt again at nightfall at the two points of
the pincer. They were reluctant to continue the attack into the night. After I issued some
rather blunt orders, the 1st and 19th Panzer Divisions finally resumed their thrusts into the
pitch black night and closed the encirclement just after midnight on 23 November.
Map 10. XLVIII Panzer Corps Operations around Brusilov, 15–24 November 1943. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
The Russians evacuated the Brusilov Pocket that day. They skillfully extracted the
staffs and specialists, which they would use to form new units.41 Many Russian troops
escaped at night through our thin and porous lines, but they still left some fat prey for us.
The three Russian corps left in the pocket 153 tanks, 70 field guns, 250 antitank guns,
more than three thousand dead, and numerous prisoners. The fighting, however, had given
the Russians time to establish a new front with additional forces between us and Kiev.
Worse still, a horrible thaw made any kind of movement impossible. I had no alternative
but to call off the corps attack. Our losses were growing unnecessarily, caused by the fact
that nobody wanted to get bogged down in the muddy wet ground made worse by rain,
rain, and more rain.
My trips to the front gave me a clear understanding of the impact of the weather
conditions. On 26 November, while I was on my way to the northern wing of the corps, I
had to be towed three times just to get to the 19th Panzer Division. After that I got into a
tracked vehicle, which promptly threw a track in the next village. Then I was able to get a
bit farther in a staff car, which finally also got stuck in the mud. Then I hiked on foot to
the 1st Panzer Division’s headquarters, and finally made it to my destination in another
staff car. I made my way back well enough in another tracked vehicle. The trip took me
twelve hours, while just a few days earlier the same trip had taken only three hours,
including the staff meetings and briefings. The next day I sent Mellenthin forward. He left
at 0500 hours, and was still not back by 2200. His car bogged down and he radioed that he
was proceeding on foot to the next village.
Radomysl
On 30 November Hoth called me to say that he was going back home for a thorough rest
leave. He would be receiving the Swords to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross,42 and he
also was mentioned in the Wehrmacht daily report. He had always been at the hot spots
since the beginning of the war, giving his all in every situation. His successor was General
of Panzer Troops Erhard Raus, who was preceded by a good reputation. He was an
Austrian with a quite good military education, a no-nonsense and calm approach, and an
infallible military sense. I served for a long time under this great soldier while
commanding my XLVIII Panzer Corps. We had a solid working relationship and we
developed a real friendship that lasted until his death in 1956.
After our successes at Brusilov the front line ran from south to north approximately to
the area of Radomysl, where the XXIV Panzer Corps’ area of operations started. At
Radomysl the newly arrived XIII Army Corps formed a 90-degree angle toward
Zhytomyr. Behind its left flank stood my XLVIII Panzer Corps, with the 1st and 7th
Panzer Divisions, the 1st SS Panzer Division, and the 68th Infantry Division. At that point
we had not been able to determine the size and kind of forces the Russians had north of
Zhytomyr, and whether it was a firm front line or just a screen of partisan forces. We
assumed they had been greatly weakened by our attacks at Zhytomyr and Brusilov.
On 23 November 1943 we monitored a British radio broadcast that reported: “The
Moscow correspondent of The Times writes that the military events in the area west of
Kiev have taken on a serious turn. It must be admitted that the Germans in this area are
fighting with great skill and that they have superior leadership.”
Map 11. XLVIII Panzer Corps Attack on Radomysl, 6–15 December 1943. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
Stalin also commented shortly thereafter that our attacks at Zhytomyr and Brusilov had
been the most dangerous of the three offensive thrusts of the XLVIII Panzer Corps.
Looking back, the biggest regrets are the failure of our attack at Zhytomyr and the
mistakes that were made in deploying and committing the 25th Panzer Division. By late
November the corps’ divisions were once again fully combat ready. We were uncommitted
and ready for future operations.
The situation had developed to the advantage of the Russians. Their Zhytomyr–
Radomysl front was an ideal position from which to launch a large-scale envelopment of
the Fourth Panzer Army. The threatening position had to be eliminated. During a meeting
with General Raus and Field Marshal von Manstein the latter asked me, “Can you roll up
the Zhytomyr–Radomysl front from the flank with a surprise pincer move?” Without
hesitation I answered immediately, “Yes.” Then the work started.
The deception plan was first. We had to assume that every Russian was a spy, and that
every movement we made and even every staff meeting was reported immediately. On the
other hand, we could not betray our intentions by conducting any kind of reconnaissance.
If we wanted to maintain surprise we had to act completely in the dark. The road from
Zhytomyr to Korosten led straight away from the western flank of the Russians toward the
north, as if it had been drawn with a straightedge. I wanted to cross that road at 0600 hours
on 6 December with all divisions moving simultaneously on a broad front.
The 68th Infantry Division and the 1st SS Panzer Division near Zhytomyr would be
able to attack right out of their assembly areas. After a short night movement the 1st
Panzer Division would be able to position itself to the left of the Leibstandarte without any
problem. It would be much more difficult for the 7th Panzer Division, which would have
to make a long night march through terrain dominated by partisans. We had to assume that
all bridges in that area were destroyed. A night movement to reach the Zhytomyr–
Korosten road without preparation was out of the question. It would have involved too
many problems. In the end we decided to use the method of motorized infiltration.
On 5 December at noon we pushed forward on all routes possible with our motorized
reconnaissance units, followed closely by engineers who repaired the bridges. The recon
elements were not supposed to get any closer than three kilometers to the Zhytomyr–
Korosten road. The main body of the 7th Panzer Division was to start movement in the
dark on the 5th, and by 0600 hours on 6 December would be guided toward the highway
so that it could cross on a wide front down to the second. The division was to be the main
effort. A PzKpfw-VI Tiger tank battalion that could not follow on the same route was to
thrust right through the enemy right flank along the highway.
Only a division with such an outstanding combat record as the 7th Panzer Division,
which had a flexible and courageous commander like General von Manteuffel and a topnotch General Staff officer Ia like Major Bleicken, could have been trusted with such a
task. For deception purposes we conducted north-south movements during daylight hours.
To issue the orders I drove from division to division without my commander’s pennant
showing on my car. Gatherings of commanders were almost always detected by enemy
intelligence and reported.
On 6 December at 0600 hours the weather was favorable, with slight frost and
moonshine. All divisions crossed the Zhytomyr–Korosten road exactly on time. The
enemy was caught completely by surprise. They had not detected our preparations or
movements. The enemy did put up a courageous but uncoordinated resistance. By evening
we had rolled up the enemy front a distance of thirty-six kilometers. This operation had
gone as they almost never do, without any crisis situation developing.
We were good at intercepting the Russian radio traffic and adapting our actions
accordingly. Initially they underestimated our attack completely. Later, they threw in some
antitank guns and tanks against us. Then the radio traffic became panicky: “Report
immediately what direction the enemy is coming from!”
“Your report is not credible!”
“Ask the devil’s grandmother. How the hell should I know what direction the enemy is
coming from.”
When the devil and his relations were cited in the radio transmissions, we knew we had
won the battle. Soon thereafter the radio traffic stopped altogether. The staff of the Russian
Sixtieth Army was fleeing. Manteuffel’s Panzers rolled right over their command post.
The 1st Panzer Division captured the staff of a tank corps, unfortunately without the
commanding general.
We had received excellent support from the Luftwaffe. The commander of the VIII
Aviation Corps, General of Aviation Hans Seidemann, had his command post right next to
mine. We worked often and well with this outstanding aviator. There was never any back
and forth, no objections, only the prompt execution of all of our support requests.
On the night of 7 December and the following day my divisions moved another twenty
kilometers. On 8 December the 1st SS Panzer Division and the 1st Panzer Division
reached the Teterev. The 7th Panzer Division broke into the bridgehead at Malyn. On the
right wing the stout 68th Infantry Division kept pace with the Panzer divisions and
stormed into Radomysl.
The Russian Sixtieth Army had been swept away. The well-developed road network
and the extremely well-stocked ammunition dumps we found made it clear that we also
had thwarted the preparations for a large-scale attack. The XIII Army Corps followed
behind us and established a frontline position facing east from Radomysl to Malyn. The
next few days brought rather diverse fighting. My corps conducted a mobile defense
forward of the new positions being established by the XIII Army Corps. The Russians
threw anything they had against us in a counterattack, which gave us the opportunity to
commit the combined divisions repeatedly against separate Russian elements, encircling
and destroying them. We finally succeeded in closing with the 68th Infantry Division near
Radomysl by committing the 1st Panzer and 1st SS Panzer Divisions on a narrow front
supported by eight artillery and five rocket launcher battalions. The encirclement closed
on 12 December, trapping three to four Russian divisions. On 14 December the XLVIII
Panzer Corps attacked successfully with everything it had in the opposite direction, toward
the north again.
The Wehrmacht daily report of 14 December noted for our area: “From 6 through 13
December the enemy lost 4,400 prisoners, about 11,000 killed, 927 guns, and 254 tanks.”
On 13 December I noted in my journal: “Ran into several columns of prisoners today.
Fifty percent children, aged between 13 and 17; forty percent Asians; ten percent old
people. No young or strong men at all. The Russians too are scraping the bottom of the
barrel.”
Meleni
The situation that had developed after our successes at Radomysl was similar to the one at
Brusilov. The XIII Army Corps was positioned with a front line facing east. On its left
wing the front made a sharp turn west toward Korosten. There the front line trace turned
again to face east, and the LXII Army Corps held a series of loosely distributed
strongpoints with weak forces. Again, the Russians had the opportunity to surround us and
advance against the left wing and the rear of the Fourth Panzer Army.
Intercepts of enemy radio traffic and reports from the XIII Army Corps indicated that
the Russians were putting fresh forces into the area around Malyn. From there enemy
reconnaissance elements were probing deeply into our rear area. That was always a sure
indicator of an impending offensive. We immediately deployed a reconnaissance battalion
into the area, where it attacked and rolled up the enemy security elements. That helped
clarify the intelligence picture. We identified one guards cavalry corps, one rifle division,
and an estimated forty tanks, with additional forces expected. Their preparations were not
quite complete yet.
Map 12. XLVIII Panzer Corps Battle of the Meleni Pocket, 12–23 December 1943. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
I recommended that we conduct a comprehensive enveloping attack into the enemy
forces near Malyn–Meleni. The 7th Panzer Division would attack from Janarka toward the
north. The 1st Panzer and 1st SS Panzer Divisions would make night movements toward
the area south of Korosten. They would then move across the Irsha River the following
morning and dislodge from west to east the enemy’s positions at Gosha, pushing them
toward the 7th Panzer Division. Then they would turn and hit from the rear the group that
we presumed would be split off near Korosten, and drive them toward the LVII Army
Corps. At the end of the operation the XLVIII Panzer Corps would stop in an echeloned
position forward of the Fourth Panzer Army’s left wing and screen it with local offensive
actions.
The difficult part was the nighttime movement of the two divisions and the
synchronized attack, all done without conducting reconnaissance while on the march. I
went over every detail with both divisions. They believed they could do it. They had long
since learned how to make the most impossible maneuvers, and I had complete confidence
in them.
On the morning of 18 December both divisions were at the Irsha. Both divisions were
committed closely together, operating in a narrow zone. The scheme of maneuver called
for the Leibstandarte to attack first, with the 1st Panzer Division’s 1st Panzer Brigade
attached to it. The force would be supported by all available artillery from the two
divisions and the corps artillery—all in all, ten artillery battalions and two rocket launcher
regiments. After the attack reached a depth of five kilometers, the fires of the entire
artillery would shift in front of the 1st Panzer Division. Then the Panzers of the 1st Panzer
Division that had to that point supported the attack of the 1st SS Panzer Division would
turn to the west and hit in the rear the enemy forces that were being pinned down by the
rest of the 1st Panzer Division. The Leibstandarte, meanwhile, would continue to attack.
Unfortunately, the attack was delayed for an hour, and we could not jump off until 1000
hours instead of 0900; but with such complicated maneuvers friction is always inevitable.
Both divisions destroyed the enemy to their fronts with lightning speed, crossed the
major Korosten–Malyn highway, and turned toward the east according to plan. The 7th
Panzer Division also made good progress. “Hopefully both attack groups will join hands
tomorrow morning,” I wrote in my journal. To our left the LVII Army Corps had been
staged and was encircling the enemy forces that had been separated near Korosten.
The enemy situation was quite clear. New units had not appeared and the ones we
suspected were all confirmed. The weakness of their artillery counterfire was quite
noticeable. The attack continued on 19 and 20 December. My primary function was to be
at the decisive point and to coordinate continually with the 1st Panzer and 1st SS Panzer
Divisions to keep their attacks synchronized. On 20 December the Leibstandarte reached
the road, crossed south of Inseforka and destroyed forty-six tanks. The 1st Panzer Division
was on the left and just as far forward. The 7th Panzer Division was involved in heavy
fighting, and I halted its attack. The situation turned on 21 December. From all sides the
Russians attacked the spearhead elements of our attacks with superior forces, creating
crisis situation after crisis situation. But my courageous troops managed to resolve all the
problems.
Around noon on the 21st the fog of battle cleared. We found two maps on a dead
Russian major that indicated the enemy’s distribution of forces and his intentions. The
Russians had prepared to attack Zhytomyr—with three rifle corps on either side of Malyn
and three tank corps and a rifle corps in the area of Ischenositschi. From here they
intended—as we had assessed correctly—to drive a wide gap into our front. Our attack
had caught them in their right flank and had completely thrown them off balance. If we
had recognized fully their intentions, who knows if we would have attacked the way we
did.
The new situation, however, required a new course of action. I decided to halt the
attack and then only establish a linkage between the 1st SS Panzer and the 7th Panzer
Divisions in order to prevent the Russian forces from moving south toward Zhytomyr.
From radio intercepts we learned that the enemy had scheduled a major orders briefing for
1500 hours on 21 December.
Their most dangerous course of action for us would have been to fight a delaying battle
to their front while their main body thrust into the rear of the XIII Army Corps and into
Zhytomyr. But the Russians did not do that on 22 December. Instead, they attacked with
two tank corps directly against the 1st Panzer Division, which did not yield an inch of
ground and destroyed sixty-eight enemy tanks. Meanwhile, an attack by the 1st SS Panzer
Division did not make any headway.
I spent all that day with the heavily engaged 1st Panzer Division. Because of the way
the front line was shaped, the division’s command post was positioned in the forwardmost
lines of the infantry division positioned to the left. When I was ready to drive off,
somebody yelled “Russian tanks 100 meters in front of the village! Infantry is falling
back!” At the entrance of the village I was forced to turn around because Russian tanks
were right in front of me. I tried to drive back to the divisional command post, but I was
surrounded by withdrawing infantry, horse-drawn wagons, limbers, and motor vehicles,
while the Russian tanks were firing constantly. Thank God they were firing while in wild
pursuit and not hitting anything. The T-34 had miserable sights. Suddenly, I was in the
middle of the Russian tank assault. The Russian tanks were in front of me, to my left and
right, and behind me. “Just drive along with them,” I yelled to my driver. It must have
been the only time that a German commanding general accompanied a Russian tank attack
in his Kübel, flying his command pennant. I could not help myself thinking that I would
not get out of this mess alive. To the right of us I saw a railroad embankment, and in the
distance I noticed an opening. “Head toward the underpass!” We moved past the Russian
tanks. Jerking, the Kübel lurched through. A lieutenant with five Panzers from the 1st
Panzer Regiment was sitting there on the other side, peacefully and totally unaware. I
immediately sent him toward the rear of the Russians and soon thereafter burning T-34s
were sitting next to each other. The lieutenant was beaming.
“I cannot believe it was us from the 1st Panzer Regiment that saved our general’s butt.
That’s great.”
“Okay, why Lieutenant?”
“Well, Sir, you have criticized us so often, and now this.”
Even back in France in 1940 I frequently complained about the 1st Panzer Regiment’s
practice of moving back to refuel, rearm, and take on rations, instead of moving the gas,
ammunition, and mess trucks forward. Many an unnecessary delay had been caused doing
things that way. Since then, this marvelous regiment that maintained a level of peak
performance until the last day of the war had abandoned this bad practice. But my
reputation as a critic of the 1st Panzer Regiment still followed me.
On 23 December we assumed a defensive posture, pulling in all the salients in our line.
Even though our attack had not led to the intended destruction of the enemy’s forces at
Malyn and Meleni, the enemy concentration nonetheless had been hit to the extent where
they could no longer attack Zhytomyr. The original Russian intent had been to conduct a
double envelopment of our forces in the area around Zhytomyr. They now had to conduct
a frontal attack. That, however, would still be bad for us.
The Dnieper Line
Even though we were fully occupied with the back and forth of the daily situation, we still
were concerned about other matters, which we discussed in the evenings. The issue that
weighed most heavily on us was our loss of the line of the Dnieper River. Why had it
collapsed so fast? Why had the Russians succeeded so quickly in crossing that imposing
glacial valley with its extremely high and dominating west bank? I had my own thoughts
on the matter.
We had a failure in foresight to reinforce the river line defenses in adequate time.
Napoleon had made the same mistake on the Elbe in 1813. It was not entirely a failure by
the senior military leadership. Hitler had specifically prohibited reinforcing that line,
believing that to do so would have a negative psychological influence on the troops who
were fighting far forward of that line. He was wrong, however. The draw toward a
protective river line remains the same whether it is fortified or not.
Furthermore, we again had neglected the tactical level in favor of the operational level.
Our unit-level tactical training had fallen to minimal levels in comparison to World War I.
The fight for a river line, however, is a strongly tactical process, and our leadership at the
army, corps, and divisional levels could no longer cope with such tactical procedures. We
committed forces to secure the bridgeheads over which we withdrew, but that was
unnecessary because withdrawing troops secure their own bridgeheads. Meanwhile, the
Russians crossed between our crossing points, where we had nobody to stop them. Nor did
we establish separate bridgeheads from which to launch counterattacks back to the east
side.
The troops hoped that the withdrawal back across the Dnieper would produce miracles
and give them some time to rest. But rest is impossible in a protective zone unless one has
fought for it. When the troops arrived on the west side of the Dnieper they found the
Russians there already. During the subsequent heavy fighting the morale of the leaders and
the troops broke down in various sectors. Later in the war I took this psychological factor
into account when analyzing other situations in light of the Dnieper experience.
Organization
I took advantage of my good relationship with General Walther Buhle, the chief of army
organization at OKW, and frequently wrote to him in detail. Buhle showed these letters to
Hitler, who always read them and, as Buhle told me later, often cited certain details.
Specific issues I wrote about extensively included:
1. The jumble of the types of motor vehicles had to be reduced to the minimum number
possible, using the same engine wherever possible. The automobile industry most likely
would have to be nationalized to achieve that objective. Industry was looking too much to
future peacetime production and was afraid of the coming competition. Hitler paid
especially close attention to this letter.
2. We had to stop over-equipping the divisions with materiel and weapons. The Panzer
divisions had to remain flexible enough to be led by any good, average commander. With
too many weapons the leadership would drown in the excess and the equipment would sit
around uselessly and finally be destroyed or lost. The excess equipment of the GrossDeutschland Division or any one of the SS Panzer divisions would have been enough to
equip an additional division. From a leadership standpoint it was far better to have two
highly mobile, easily led divisions than one that was cumbersome and over-equipped.
Hitler did not agree at all with this recommendation.
3. We needed a new type of division, equipped largely with motorized antitank guns.
Such units would be held under the direct control of the senior leadership for commitment
against Russian breakthroughs. During its three battles the XLVIII Panzer Corps had
captured such a great number of antitank guns that according to my calculations there
were enough to stand up two such strong divisions easily, without burdening the armament
industry. With a quick work order the barrels of the captured Russian guns could have
been enlarged easily to fit our ammunition. But these precious, captured weapons were
now just wasting away.43
Such a unique division was later established, but I have no way of knowing if my letter
had any influence in the matter. It was designated a Sturmdivision,44 but it was not used as
a higher command reserve asset. Rather, it was assigned to hold rigidly an assigned sector
of the line, and consequently it was a total failure.
The Leadership
Hitler never interfered in the operations of my corps. I always had complete freedom of
action. I was allowed to attack, defend, or withdraw as I thought appropriate. In the usual
fashion, army and army group allocated the tasks and objectives without ever getting
involved in details.45
At the army group level the situation was different. Constrained strictly by Hitler’s
orders, Army Group South had to hold at all costs in the center and on its right, and thus
had no chance to operate independently and maneuver to maintain positional advantage. In
his own memoirs Field Marshal von Manstein discusses in detail the restrictions and the
incredible stress that resulted. This naturally affected the situation around us and the
distribution of forces to my corps. My journal entries at the time are filled with critical
comments about the situation.
Evening Conversations
Ever since I had taken command of the 11th Panzer Division I had gotten into the routine
of practicing my English for an hour before dinner. It was a good way to balance out the
often hectic, exciting, and physically challenging events of the day. It was fascinating how
this mental exercise cleared out my brain, distracted me from the daily events, and created
the opportunity for me to deal with different matters in the evening. Our evening dinner
meal was a custom strictly observed by all the officers of the staff. The effort to reduce
staff work to its minimum made it possible. Any visitors to the corps headquarters were
also invited. Two conversations with visiting officers still stick in my mind.
One officer had been to Galicia46 and told us there were no more Jews there. To my
question as to where they had gone, he stated that they had been moved and eliminated. I
answered skeptically, “Well you better win the war, otherwise Lord help us.” I did not put
much weight on his statement, because from my time in Frankfurt I knew what sort of
misinformation was going around.
Sometime later another officer traveled through. He had been to Auschwitz and had
seen the camps. He described enthusiastically how the Jews there were being prepared for
their resettlement. He described the barns, the agriculture, schools, and such. I interjected,
“I thought the Galician Jews had all been killed.”
“But no, nobody harmed them; they are all well taken care of in Auschwitz.”
I thought to myself how unreliable the rumors always were, and how useless it was to
listen to such talk. But I mention those two conversations here because they illustrate how
little we knew and how devilishly clever the cloak of deception had been. None of what
was happening was supposed to filter through to the Wehrmacht.47
The Hydra
We had some justification in hoping that the XLVIII Panzer Corps’ three offensive thrusts
had crippled the Russian ability to attack on a large scale. We knew, of course, that we had
not stopped them completely. When on the morning of 23 December General Raus called
to inform me that the [XXIV Panzer Corps]48 had been defeated near Brusilov and that my
corps was to advance south through Zhytomyr in front of the Russian attack, we knew that
the Russians had been able to bring up new strong forces. At least instead of attacking in
three places we would have to attack only in one place. The orders were issued quickly.
On 25 December my staff was already south of Zhytomyr. A German Panzer corps had
been destroyed. The three Panzer divisions of its northern wing, the 8th, 19th, and 2nd SS,
now came under my command. Where exactly they were located was unclear.
The 1st Panzer Division was far too slow in arriving to suit my understanding of the
overall situation. I immediately moved them onto the major Zhytomyr–Kiev highway and
ordered them to attack toward the east. Even though the attack was not a complete
success, the stout division still managed to make contact with the main body of the 8th
Panzer Division. We tried to pass the 2nd SS Panzer and 19th Panzer Divisions back
through our lines. We got Das Reich through, and with it an element of the 8th, but not the
19th. The enemy had managed to move between them and the 1st Panzer Division, which
was pushed off toward the south.
The situation became tense. Doing the right thing, Mellenthin immediately established
a special radio relay station with the sole mission of establishing and maintaining radio
contact with the 19th Panzer Division. “Thirty enemy tanks to my front,” was the first
radio contact. Then. “We are being attacked by strong tank forces. No fuel. Help, help,
help!” After that the radio fell silent and we did not hear anything for hours.
The lead elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division were struggling to get through
Zhytomyr. As the individual battalions, tanks, and batteries arrived, we had to decide if we
would commit them to the fight piecemeal in an attempt to relieve the 19th Panzer
Division. Emotionally, the obligation of comradeship pointed to that course of action.
Logic, however, argued against it. The piecemeal commitment of the Leibstandarte could
have resulted in the destruction of a first-rate division, without which it would no longer
be possible to stop the Russians. The decision to first assemble the 1st SS Panzer Division
and then attack was one of the most difficult Mellenthin and I ever had to make. We knew
that this decision most likely would mean the end of the 19th Panzer Division.
I sat in my room in a dark mood as the hours passed. Then the door flew open and a
beaming Mellenthin stood there holding the most recent radio report from the 19th:
“Currently conducting a somewhat orderly withdrawal toward the west.” On 27 December
we established the linkup. General Källner had brilliantly withdrawn the division,
destroyed numerous tanks, and brought back almost all his equipment. The elements of the
8th Panzer Division also looked better than we had hoped. Källner had done it just like the
Russians; he avoided the major highways and marched back on secondary roads. It was a
marvelous accomplishment.
In the meantime the 1st SS Panzer Division moved forward near Weliza while the 7th
Panzer Division followed. We had managed to extract the remnants of the destroyed
divisions and then form a new front—for the time being, at least. The Russians were now
very strong. They had hundreds of tanks positioned near Zhytomyr.
And then a small “Marne Miracle”49 occurred. On 27 December the Russians halted.
There were several possible explanations why they did so. Perhaps they had become
cautious because of the aggressive active defense that the XLVIII Panzer Corps always
conducted. Perhaps they had massed too many units on one road. Perhaps they were
intimidated by the overwhelming firepower of the 18th Artillery Division.50 Perhaps they
could not redeploy their units fast enough out of the encirclement maneuver and into a
main attack. Whatever the reason, the one day reprieve was a blessing.
What had happened to the XXIV Panzer Corps? In one of the Panzer divisions the
commander, who was an artillery officer, had used his Panzers as artillery, grouping four
tanks into a battery. The Panzers were not trained to fire as artillery and proved worthless.
In the process, they gave up their most important weapon, which was their mobility. At
least, that was how I saw the situation at the time, without really being able to verify it.51
The broader reason for the failure can be explained by the lack of tightly managed
training, which we had cultivated with such resounding success during World War I. Our
habit of committing all our Panzer divisions to the forward front lines certainly
compounded the failure. That made it almost impossible for the next higher level of
command to detach them and deploy them elsewhere. And that, of course, tied the hands
of the higher echelon commanders.
Once Again to Zhytomyr
The traffic hub at Zhytomyr had influenced the course of the recent events in a most
unfavorable manner. Countless logistics and supply units were in the town itself. Convoys
and supply trains of the XIII Army Corps and one other German corps were pouring in
from the east. Simultaneously from the west, the Fourth Panzer Army was sending the
newly arrived 18th Artillery Division into the town. It was next to impossible to pull my
corps’ three divisions through the town toward the south. Any active interference from the
enemy would result in a catastrophe.
We started working on the problem immediately. My corps’ adjutant obtained an order
giving me the authority to establish control in the town and move the three divisions
through. He counted no fewer than 327 units concentrated within the town. The main
reason for the mess was that all the rear area services had moved together. They did not
want to stay out in the villages, where the partisans were. Once inside the town there was
no requirement for guard duty and there were plenty of opportunities for horse trading and
other similar foolishness.
An artillery division was an absurdity that was established out of valuable army-level
artillery units.52 If this unit had been committed to reinforce troop artillery units, it could
have had a decisive influence on the battle. As a division it had an independent combat
mission that it could not accomplish, and it was doomed to fail. Reconstituted, the division
reappeared later in Galicia. Now—interestingly enough—it was reinforced with an assault
gun battalion, and as a result the division was used as a Panzer division. Once again, it
failed to meet expectations and it senselessly tied up precious equipment. It was all
organizational madness, and it was not only Hitler who was guilty of such nonsense.53
Fortunately, I was soon able to return control of Zhytomyr back to the XIII Army
Corps. Since the front was stabilizing, no decisive actions were initiated to withdraw from
the town. When we were finally forced to abandon it under pressure, we had to torch
between six thousand and seven thousand of our vehicles because we could not move
them out. Based on the Zhytomyr experience, from that point on I prohibited my units
from taking up positions in any of the larger towns and traffic nodes in the rear. Military
police made sure that this order was enforced. Between Berdychiv and Graz in 1945 I did
not allow a “second Zhytomyr” to develop. With all my supply units positioned in the
flatlands or in small villages, the partisans were robbed of their bases of operations.
Nonetheless, I was flooded with well thought out and brilliantly analyzed assessments
explaining why moving the logistical support units out into the countryside would
endanger and even make impossible the overall support of the troops. As the flawlessly
reasoned arguments ran, only the towns had the traffic infrastructure necessary for support
operations. But I remained firm and never allowed the smallest exception. The predicted
grave disadvantages never appeared, but partisans did disappear.
Defensive Battles
We succeeded in pulling the XLVIII Panzer Corps in front of the Russian offensive,
establishing contact with our adjacent corps, and developing a somewhat contiguous front
line. The Russian tendency to operate hesitantly and methodically played to our
advantage. They missed a number of good opportunities. Thank God I had complete
freedom to maneuver the corps and I did not receive any orders to hold at all costs. Thus, I
was able to conduct mobile defensive operations.
In professional military literature the question has been raised time and again as to
which is the strongest form of combat, the attack or the defense? In World War I it was the
defense, because barbed wire and machine guns were invincible. But in the age of the
Panzer it is the attack. The effect of a dozen soldiers acting with forceful initiative can
transmit a psychologically decisive energy to the attack of an entire division. The mass
just has to follow through. In the defense, with its extended front lines during World War
II, everybody had to perform at full capacity. Sitting in your foxhole by yourself—not a
fellow soldier in sight, but everything moving toward you—is a situation that not
everyone has the nerves for. As a result, almost all linear and stubbornly defended
positions in World War II were penetrated. The defense, therefore, had to be conducted in
a mobile and offensive manner, so that the two most precious weapons, initiative and
surprise, remained in your own hands and not the enemy’s.54
This was our operational approach in the following weeks. Our weak and overstretched
divisions holding frontline sectors up to forty kilometers long were penetrated at
numerous points by strong Russian tank forces. I pulled the corps back into a shorter
straight-line position, and in the course of the move we destroyed every Russian tank that
stood between and behind our battle groups. Most importantly, my three stalwart divisions
took up their new positions confident of victory.
At one point we launched a surprise counterattack along the whole front line after we
had evaded the enemy purposely for two days. At another point we concentrated strong
Panzer formations and then rolled up the entire Russian advance position parallel to the
corps’ front. The most important thing was never to repeat our tactics and only to do what
would catch the enemy by total surprise. However, my three first-rate divisions were the
main pillars of success, and after months of fighting together they had been welded into an
effective weapon. Without a lot of back and forth discussion, they executed quickly what
was ordered of them, even though at the time they might not fully understand the intent of
the corps headquarters. The element of trust we had built slowly was now bearing rich
fruit.
The position of the corps command post was especially important during this kind of
fighting. Russian tank attacks almost always targeted towns and traffic nodes with pincer
movements. If the command post was at the point where the pincers came together, the
invariable result was that the staff had to displace and all command and control ceased.
That is why near Berdychiv I did not position my command post in the town, but six
kilometers behind it. Nor was it on a major road, but three kilometers off, in a small,
miserable village with only dirt road access. The radio relay stations upon which the
enemy could establish a fix and then determine our exact position were emplaced remotely
and well distributed along the perimeter. A robust radio network ensured the uninterrupted
flow of the signals traffic. Thus, when the Russians moved into Berdychiv from all sides
they only hit a pocket of air. We were able to continue operations and maintain control
without interruption.
We always issued orders well in advance, putting them into effect by broadcasting a
pre-designated code word. Knowing the orders they would have to execute, the divisions
could establish their positions and send all unnecessary equipment and supplies to the rear.
If they had to conduct a withdrawal, the divisions had the flexibility to conduct the
movement calmly. The use of such preplanned orders also gave the subordinate units the
sense that we never acted on snap decisions, that everything was well thought out and
planned in advance. The troops appreciated it. The 1st SS Panzer Division was attached to
a different corps for a period. When they came back under my command and they received
a preplanned order, they responded on the radio, “Hurrah, we again hear the voice of our
master!”
During withdrawal movements the higher-level command post must be in
communications at all times. We therefore always moved the corps command post well to
the rear and then established the signals network. Then, we calmly let the front line move
back toward us over the course of a few days. All too often higher-level headquarters
were, for reasons of prestige, reluctant to move immediately and stayed too long in the
advanced front lines. The consequence was that they had to displace at the critical
moments and could not maintain command and control. Catastrophe was often the result.
Under our system, I always had the options of rushing forward to a crisis point or of
sending a liaison officer.
The Result
The operations of the XLVIII Panzer Corps had prevented the Russians from launching
any of their own operations, even though they had superior forces. Next to my troops
themselves, the decisive factor in the overall outcome were the army and army group
headquarters, both of which gave my corps freedom of action and screened us from all
attempted interferences. Such a screen is worth more than a hundred tanks.
Two additional factors gave us strength. We knew that friendly reinforcements were
moving forward and we also noticed that the Russians were noticeably running out of
steam. From 25 December to 3 January, 396 enemy tanks were destroyed in the corps area
of operations. By 18 January the count increased to 530 tanks and our main adversary, the
Third Guards Army, was out of tanks. We monitored the enemy closely through our radio
intercepts and we knew his daily problems.
The Soviet prisoners left a deep impression on us. The majority seemed to be only
eleven to seventeen years old, but there were also a lot of Asians, and very old men. As
one of my divisions radioed in after an action, “Another children’s crusade done with.”
Another called it “The Bethlehem Murder of the Innocents.”
On 31 December the 1st SS Panzer Division destroyed a tank whose commander had
been an armament worker in the Urals. He told his interrogators that on 17 November a
decree by Stalin had been read to them, ordering to the front all armament workers who
knew how to drive a tank. They apparently had enough tanks now.
Women increasingly appeared among the prisoners. On 16 January we captured a radio
relay station. The station chief cooperated willingly and told us everything we wanted to
know. Two of the captured radio operators were women. One of them, named Masha, was
gravely wounded and later died. We intercepted a radio transmission from a higher-level
Russian General Staff officer asking about Masha. He was very concerned about her.
The other female radio operator told us, “I am a communist. I will not say anything. I
am not such a disgraceful wimp, like that one,” she said, pointing at the station chief. And
she stuck to it, earning our respect. We treated her accordingly—we let her escape.
During the fighting of the past few weeks we had become completely convinced that
the Russians were scraping the bottom of the barrel. We believed that we could see that
bottom. That gave us the strength and confidence to hold out. Again and again I recorded
this thought in my journal. We were fighting now to save our homeland. Such was the
background to Manteuffel’s decision to execute a German soldier for cowardice.55
Incidentals
It would take too much space to describe the fighting in every detail. It was a string of
crisis situations. Soviet tanks broke through, we chased them down and destroyed them.
The Luftwaffe became increasingly successful at intervening in ground combat with tankdestroying attack aircraft. They often provided the decisive support. On 5 January the
XLVIII Panzer Corps conducted an especially successful attack on thirty-seven enemy
tanks that had established an all-round defensive perimeter behind our front near Sherebin.
At the exact same second that the Panzers bore down on the enemy the air support came
in, and together they annihilated the enemy in just a few minutes. Some of the bombs,
however, landed only five meters in front of the Panzers. Peiper,56 the courageous
commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, later said that they could have finished the
fight well enough without air support.
Divisions came and went. The 1st Panzer and 1st SS Panzer Divisions took part in the
relief of the Cherkasy Pocket and later the Kamenets–Podolsky Pocket.57 During various
crises, other corps headquarters (for example, XIII Army Corps) were attached to the
XLVIII Panzer Corps. Sometimes we had only infantry divisions, sometimes only Panzer
divisions under us. When at one point the 1st SS Panzer Division was cut off and the radio
contact ceased, a detachment from the corps signal battalion was able to lay a wire right
through enemy territory. Just as we had completed issuing the orders to the Leibstandarte,
the connection was cut. It was a unique accomplishment. All members of the signal
detachment received the Iron Cross 2nd Class, and those who already had one received the
Iron Cross 1st Class.58
When things calmed down a little I was able to thank the troops. On 20 January I
invited two hundred stalwart frontline soldiers to the corps headquarters for two days.
After delousing and a bath, they got fresh laundry and new uniforms. Then they watched a
comedy movie, heard a lecture, and had a soldiers’ night out. After two full nights of sleep
they received stationery with airmail stamps to write home, saw another movie, and then
returned to their units. The mood was incredible during the soldiers’ night. I sat next to a
Gefreiter who had the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and eighty-one confirmed tank
kills. The situation only became a little touchy when the troops of the 1st SS Panzer
Division and the 7th Panzer Division decided to settle the question of which of the two
divisions was better. But that situation was eventually resolved with a friendly handshake.
Overall the troops were relaxed and friendly. They were quite different from the faces of
the soldiers of 1918. The latter had been hard-edged, with sunken cheeks and dogged
faces reflecting their problems. The soldiers of this war were well fed, and confidence
reflected in their faces. It was an elite force we had assembled there.59
Of our division commanders, Manteuffel was reassigned. He was a huge loss. It is hard
to describe what it means for a corps when such a division commander leaves, a man who
could be given any mission without having to worry about it again. What the 7th Panzer
Division was then, Manteuffel had made it. His successor was the commander of the
division’s 25th Panzer Regiment, Colonel Adelbert Schulz, nicknamed “Diamond
Schulz.” He was the ninth of only twenty-seven German soldiers to receive the Iron Cross
Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds.60 Unfortunately, he died a
hero’s death all too soon on 28 January. Certainly he would have developed into one of the
best Panzer leaders. His successor, Major General Dr. Karl Maus, also received the
Diamonds. Including Manteuffel, the 7th Panzer Division had three commanders who
earned Germany’s highest military decoration.61
As January turned into February the situation calmed down. The Russians pulled some
of their forces back. The unseasonal rain and resulting mud brought everything to a
standstill. The operational pause was a relaxing break for the staff.
Political Strands
An article in the Soviet official newspaper Pravda accused England of conducting secret
peace negotiations with Germany. The American press picked the story up in a big way,
with headlines and commentary about perfidious Albion. As I wrote in my journal at the
time:
“How much is true? The war has come to a standstill. The front lines are frozen in
place. This is the hour of politics. There are three things the English are afraid of: our
retaliatory attacks, their own attack on the Atlantic Wall, and the further expansion of
Russia. Paradoxically, any Russian gains strengthen our political position. Since the
Russians know no limits to their expansionism and they could grab vital English
Mediterranean nerve centers, a rapprochement between England and Germany does not
seem impossible. We do not want anything from England and Italy’s crazy ambitions no
longer mean anything to us. Antwerp? As Napoleon said on St. Helena, ‘C’est pour
l’Anvers, que je suis ici.’ [‘It is because of Antwerp, that I am here.’] That is the critical
point. But if neither side can achieve a total victory, both sides will have no choice but to
come to an agreement. Maybe 1944 will be a year of politics.”
Graf Vitzthum, a General Staff officer, was traveling through my corps’ sector. He had
left Stalingrad on the last plane, and he told us stories about the heroism and incredible
suffering of the troops who held out to the last moment. Ten days before he was flown out
they ran out of bread. Countless wounded must have perished in Stalingrad. We were no
longer capable of taking care of them, and the Russians just let them die. The Russians
claimed ninety-two thousand men as prisoners, which could be somewhat accurate. We
never saw many of them again. Most of those captured were totally exhausted and could
not have survived the marches. A captured logistics officer who did survive later stated
that many who were too weak in the prisoner camps were beaten to death by Italian
prisoners. If that is true, it would be consistent with the Bolshevist policies of sowing
hatred and discontent. Years later a senior medical officer who survived Stalingrad told
me, “Since Stalingrad I again believe in the German as a human being.”
The propaganda was now running at full speed, fired along by the National Committee
for a Free Germany.62 It had little effect, however. Interestingly enough, the Russians were
now treating their prisoners very well at the time, as people who had escaped from
Russian captivity later told us. It seemed that the time was over when the Russians beat all
their prisoners to death.
On the Styr River
In mid-February I wrote in my journal: “Overall, the situation on the eastern front is not
bad. At Army Groups North and Center it looks relatively good, and Army Group South
now seems to be out of the worst of it, thanks to Manstein and to Hitler finally approving
withdrawals. [On the right flank of] Army Group Center, however, there is a gap, and
nothing to fill it from either side.”
No sooner had I written those words than the headquarters and staff of the XLVIII
Panzer Corps were pulled out of the line and sent to plug that gap. Initially we deployed
without any troop units. We traveled across Galicia. For some reason I can no longer
remember we had a twenty-four-hour layover in Lwów. A Ukrainian professor gave me a
tour of the city. It was an unexpected sight. Countless cultures over time had left their
influence on the city. This temporary excursion into the academic world was an
indescribable pleasure after the long military winter.
On 16 February we arrived at our objective in Radekhiv. The Russians in that sector
had nothing and we had nothing, but the elusive partisan bands were everywhere. The
corps’ mission was to close the gap between Army Groups South and Center, push the
Russians beyond the Styr, and if possible take Lutsk. Meanwhile, the 7th Panzer Division
and half of the 8th Panzer Division were moving up to join us. Near Sokal the newly
formed Generalgouvernement Infantry Division was assembling.63 It was uncertain if it
had any combat value. At least the newly assigned division commander, General Gustav
Harteneck, was an old colleague from my time in the 17th Cavalry Regiment and a proven
commander. In and around Kovel there was also a Waffen-SS battle group under
Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.64
The Russians did not have many units in the area yet. The mass of their forces was near
Dubno, with the I Guard Cavalry Corps north of Lutsk and the 2nd Infantry Division
farther north. The Fourth Panzer Army favored a frontal attack on Lutsk. I did not think
that would produce much effect. My recommended course of action, with which higher
headquarters finally concurred, was to take the bridge across the Styr near Rozhysche with
the 7th Panzer Division and then advance on the eastern side of the river to take Lutsk
from the rear.
We attacked in absolutely horrible weather, as the divisions crept painfully forward in
the snow and mud. I was only able to visit my divisions in a Storch. On schedule, the 7th
Panzer Division took the bridge across the Styr and Rozhysche on 23 February. Fighting
with a recently raised division that he did not know and that did not know him, Harteneck
threw the enemy back into Lutsk. Meanwhile, General Joseph von Radowitz with half of
the 8th Panzer Division arrived south of Lutsk and crossed the Styr.
So far the operation had gone smoothly. But then the bridge across the Styr near
Rozhysche collapsed while a Panzer was crossing it. Then a hastily constructed
replacement sank into the mud. It took an additional day before an adequate bridge was
ready. The Russians, meanwhile, used the time to close off the breakout point from the
bridgehead, and we made no progress on the 24th. On 25 February the Russians broke out
of their bridgehead at Lutsk, created some chaos, lost thirty-seven tanks, and then
disappeared.
On 27 February it was clear that our operation had ground to a halt. Snow and ice had
robbed us of the element of surprise. The Russians also had committed strong air assets
against us, which made moving around in a Storch very difficult and risky. We were
constantly dodging air attacks. After one such attack, when I had been forced to crawl into
the snow, I dug myself out only to be staring into the beaming face of my escort officer
from the 7th Panzer Division.
“Looks like you are enjoying the fact that the old man got into this mess.”
“Yes, Sir,” he responded back happily. Such moments make you forget all the troubles
of the day.
The Russians were encircling us on our northern and southern wings with one cavalry
division each. Initially we concentrated on the northern division, which only managed to
escape back across the Styr by abandoning all of its artillery. The situation in the south
was a little more tedious, but we were quite confident. During this fight Kovel was
generally calm. I flew into there once, and was favorably impressed with von dem BachZelewski’s leadership.
By 2 March we had the entire Styr line north of Lutsk in our hands. The Russians had
been thrown back across the river and into the narrow bridgehead at Lutsk. South of Lutsk
the operation moved along quite nicely, and we anticipated that in three to four days we
would have firm control of the entire line of the Styr. On the evening of 2 March, General
Raus called me and ordered: “Detach your corps headquarters and the 7th Panzer Division
immediately and move toward Tarnopol.”
It was frustrating. I did not want to leave unfinished work behind, but I had to leave
Vladimir–Volynskyi. In 1915 as the commander of a Jäger company I had participated in
the attack on that city and then had held it for several days against Russian attacks. I
would have liked to visit the old site again, but there was just not enough time.
Tarnopol
Hitler never interfered directly in the combat operations of the XLVIII Panzer Corps, and
the corps had a totally free hand in the conduct of its missions. Nevertheless, Hitler’s order
to hold to the last man still affected the corps and its senior headquarters, Army Group
South. There were too many forces concentrated in the bend of the Dnieper River, and the
corps was always short one division of consolidating any of its victories. Again and again
I was forced to write in my journal, “I stopped the attack.” In all these cases we found
ourselves lacking that last bit of strength, and we therefore had to settle for lesser results to
avoid sacrificing the troops unnecessarily. Manstein’s restricted freedom of action will
always be a classic example of the limitations of a political war leadership and where
politics has to bend to the military requirements or the tool will break. That Germany had
a military genius in Manstein who was at the right place at the right time and who should
have been given a free hand only exacerbated the German tragedy.
So, it was a rather desperate situation that the corps faced as we arrived in the vicinity
of Tarnopol. With the 1st SS Panzer and 7th Panzer Divisions we were supposed to close
the gap to the left wing of the First Panzer Army, and in the process prevent its
encirclement by the Russians, who had positioned their forces from north to south with
their right wing in the direction of Tarnopol. Some dark, sixth sense told me to move away
from Zbarazh, that we would be in the wrong position. Thus, I moved the command post
to Tarnopol. As the corps headquarters elements were displacing from Zbarazh, Russian
tanks were already pushing into the town.
The 1st SS Panzer and the 7th Panzer Divisions were positioned along the road from
Tarnopol to Proskuriv,65 but with open flanks on both the left and right. In Tarnopol there
were some quick reaction units, three armored railroad trains, and the corps headquarters,
and then nothing up to the right flank of XIII Army Corps. Practically speaking, there was
nothing available. Even though the Leibstandarte and the 7th Panzer Division had
destroyed one hundred tanks in thirty hours, that success by these two marvelous divisions
had no meaning whatsoever against the overwhelming Russian masses that were rolling
toward us. Things looked bleak in Tarnopol. We had to make something out of nothing.
Hitler had ordered that Tarnopol would be evacuated only on his orders, which in this
case was the right decision. In support, the Fourth Panzer Army ordered any available
units into Tarnopol, restricting their commitment only to the defense of the city itself. But
that was a wrong decision that could only lead to the loss of the town. I relieved the
commandant of Tarnopol and gave Major Johannes Erasmus, my corps Ia, the armored
trains, an engineer battalion, and some assault guns. I then ordered him to delay the enemy
as far north as possible from Tarnopol. For two days Erasmus conducted a heavy but
clever fight near Zbarazh against the spearhead of the Russian VI Guards Tank Corps.
Erasmus was awarded the Iron Cross Knight’s Cross for the extra time he bought us, and
the deep mud also helped us spoil the Russian plans. The Fourth Panzer Army,
understandably, did not insist on their order to use the few forces that we had only in the
city itself. On the evening of 8 March, in accordance with our standing procedures, we
displaced the corps command post from Tarnopol to a village south of the city.
Three newly stood-up infantry divisions were ordered forward to come under my
operational control, which meant that the worst was over. At the moment, however, I still
could not help the 1st SS Panzer and 7th Panzer Divisions that were isolated in forward
positions, acting as breakwaters in the onrushing sea. One thing that helped was that the
Fourth Panzer Army relieved the corps of the responsibility of commanding Tarnopol and
assumed direct command of the town’s defense. We had enough responsibilities without
Tarnopol.
How were we to continue the operation? The Fourth Panzer Army wanted us to thrust
north of Tarnopol into the right flank of the southward advancing Russian forces.
Attacking through the mud with only infantry divisions was something I questioned, and I
finally was able to get acceptance for my course of action. I wanted to meet the enemy
head on, then attack his lead elements, and then move the infantry divisions around south
of Tarnopol and thus close the gap with the 7th Panzer Division. It was a simple,
unsophisticated solution, dictated by the road net. The mud made any sort of wide-ranging
maneuver impossible.
Some tense hours followed. The corps headquarters had been discovered by Russian
fighter planes because somebody had found it necessary to establish a landing strip for
medical evacuation aircraft right next to us. We were able to move the command post just
in time. Immediately after we displaced, the buildings in which we had been located were
piles of smoking rubble.
The new infantry divisions finally arrived on 12 March. The 395th Infantry Division
was committed north of Tarnopol on the Siret River, plugging at least part of the gap
between us and the XIII Army Corps. The 68th and 359th Infantry Divisions were
committed to the attack. Supported by assault guns, they made good progress. We
continuously monitored Russian radio traffic reporting that an avalanche was coming their
way. But nothing moved quite fast enough in the mud, even though the 68th Infantry
Division was masterfully led and attacked with incredible energy and the adjacent 359th
Infantry Division provided excellent support. By 20 March success was within reach. The
VI Guards Mechanized Corps and two Russian infantry divisions were pushed against the
left flank of the 7th Panzer Division and encircled.
We were hoping for a decisive success, but things turned out differently. At 0500 hours
on 21 March the Russians attacked us on a broad front, supported by countless tanks.
Messages with bad news kept piling up. Even though we managed to destroy forty-eight
Russian tanks, there were no reserve forces available. I had little option but to withdraw
the 7th Panzer and 68th Infantry Divisions back to a rearward line. Several extremely
tense days followed. The Russians broke through the gap between the 1st SS Panzer and
7th Panzer Divisions. The 68th Infantry Division positioned on the left moved closer to
the 7th Panzer. Farther to the west in the direction of the 359th Infantry Division, the
Russians advanced through a huge gap and attacked the 359th from the rear. The 359th
Infantry Division, north of Tarnopol, was in dire straits. Between it and the XIII Army
Corps the Russians were moving south without opposition.
In such a situation the only viable course of action was to break contact. I pulled the
Leibstandarte, the 7th Panzer Division, and the 68th Infantry Division back, and moved
the 359th Infantry Division back beyond the Siret River. I also reinforced the 359th by
attaching a Tiger66 tank battalion to it.
The retrograde movements were difficult and crisis-riddled, but they succeeded. I
turned the two Panzer divisions over to the First Panzer Army, which considerably
reduced my command problems. Only the 359th Infantry Division was still in trouble.
Even though it had forty-two Tigers attached to it, it nonetheless had trouble starting its
withdrawal. But finally the front stabilized, and the 395th and 359th Infantry Divisions got
across the Siret River. The 359th Infantry Division had put up an especially good fight.
With five Tigers, one platoon of engineers, and assorted supply clerks they had held two
Russian infantry divisions in check, conducting several courageous counterattacks along
the division’s twenty-kilometer-deep open flank.
Two more new infantry divisions arrived. The 349th Infantry Division was committed
in the gap with the XIII Army Corps. Its mission was to attack and establish a link with
the corps. They succeeded. The 100th Jäger Division, meanwhile, moved to the corps’
right wing, as the 8th Panzer Division now came up from our rear. The 100th Jäger
Division took Podlyce, and behind it the II SS Panzer Corps moved up. I watched it
moving toward Podlyce and noted that it had marvelous marching discipline, excellent
equipment, and impressive people. It was incredible that in the fifth year of the war we
could still muster such divisions.
On 10 April we established the link to the withdrawing First Panzer Army. We knew
the First Panzer Army’s situation was not all that bad from a radio message that the
Russians had sent to them on 2 April: “If the First Army does not throw down their
weapons today, the leadership will be shot in front of the troops for the unnecessary
bloodshed. Signed Zhukov.”67 The Russians typically sent out such broadcasts whenever
things were not going their way.
A crisis of the first order had been resolved, but it could have been avoided completely
if only Manstein had been given totally free reign, if instead of forming new divisions the
new troops and equipment had been integrated into the old units, and if the decision had
been made in a timely manner to bring all available reserves from France and give them to
Manstein. There would have been sufficient time to shift the reserves to the East and then
back to the West to deal with the impending invasion of the western Allies.
Manstein was relieved of his command in early April. His memoirs well reflect how we
all felt about that.68
The End at Tarnopol
The fortified city of Tarnopol held by about two thousand men was now forward of our
front lines. The decision to hold Tarnopol had been a correct one initially. On 1 April I
wrote in my journal: “Fortress Tarnopol has withstood the thrust. We owe them our
current calm. Without them we would not have been able to hold, and the [encircled] First
Panzer Army most likely would have been lost. But the correct moment to order the
evacuation of the town has passed. Now the Tarnopol garrison must be relieved.”
On 10 April the 8th Panzer Division and the 9th SS Panzer Division69 were attached to
my corps for that relief mission. I wrote in my journal: “Hopefully it is not too late. The
garrison force is very much at the end of their strength.”
Horrible rain and muddy weather conditions prevailed as we got ready. In the sector of
one of the divisions a recently finished bridge sank into the bog. While I was at one of the
division’s command posts three attacks by Russian fighter-bombers dropped 150 heavy
bombs right on top of us. For the first time in my military career I got directly involved in
the command of my subordinate units. I went to all the regiments and battalions,
personally made sure that fuel was brought forward to the tanks, and stayed with the
forwardmost Panzer until it was refueled. My personal intervention provided the necessary
jump-start.
On 16 April the Russian air attacks stopped. I later learned the reason when I was in
Velykyy Khodachkiv with the leading Panzers. General Egon von Neindorff, the
commandant of Tarnopol, had ordered a breakout in three directions. Seventy of the
garrison troops reached my location. Neindorff along with his deputy, Colonel von
Schönfeld, had been killed on 15 April. With all forces available I continued the attack to
reach the remaining encircled troops. The attack gained some momentum, but
unfortunately it was now too late. Ten more troops made it to the Panzer spearhead and
fifty more reached the 357th Infantry Division. Then the Russians counterattacked our
attack wedge from all sides. I issued the order to hold on for another two days, until we
were sure that remaining survivors of the breakout had reached us. Then we pulled our
attacking forces back, and the Russians did not follow us.
The operation had been less than satisfactory. We only managed to rescue a little more
than one hundred out of two thousand. That was not enough. Many of those who had
escaped had been allowed to do so by the Russians, hoping to gain a propaganda effect.
What had caused the failure? The initial problem was that although the decision to hold
Tarnopol was correct initially, we continued to hold it too long after its usefulness had
lapsed. The order to break out came far too late. The success of the relief operation was
then doubtful at that point because we did not have the necessary forces to reach the
encircled troops. By design Tarnopol had been an economy of force position.
When we launched the relief operation the weather turned any kind of combat action
into agony of the worst sort and restricted the direction of our advance to our
disadvantage. The weather and the terrain dictated where we had to attack, and the enemy
could see that as clearly as we could. Once we had managed to link up with the First
Panzer Army southeast of Tarnopol, the Russians then had the freedom of action to
concentrate all of their forces and air assets against us.
Psychologically we had made another mistake, and Himmler himself was the most
likely source. The II SS Panzer Corps had been deployed to Russia to gain combat
experience, but with orders to avoid unnecessary losses. As Himmler told them: “Your
main mission is not to fight in the East, but to turn back the invasion [in the West].”70 It
does not take a psychologist to understand the consequences of these orders.
The forming of the 9th SS Panzer Division was one of our organizational failures. The
proper leadership was not available for the division’s marvelous people and equipment.
On 17 April I noted in my journal: “The Division Hohenstaufen was, even considering all
of its enthusiasm for combat, not at the level of combat readiness necessary to accomplish
a quick breakthrough. Everyone in the unit did his best, but that was not the issue. The
best man in the division was the Ia, Obersturmbannführer [Walter] Harzer, who deplored
the situation and who stated such in the most diplomatic way.”
It would be unfair not to add here that the 9th SS Panzer Division later overcame these
initial problems and accomplished many good things.71 Hitler had not put any priority
onto the relief of Tarnopol. Beyond that, anything else is speculation.
Between the Storms
The Russians had not succeeded in destroying us. But neither had we succeeded in forcing
the enemy into a draw. The result was a forced lull.
Both opponents had to reconstitute their forces. The Russians were now planning to
wait to launch their next offensive until our divisions in the West were tied up by the
Anglo-American invasion.
Galicia
After the withdrawal, the corps staff was based in the Potocki Palace near Pomorzany, in
the beautiful region of Galicia. It was not much of a castle at that point. All the furniture
had been plundered. The building was empty except for a preserved crab, the size of a
lobster, hanging on the wall in a glass case. It gave us all sorts of culinary ideas, but in its
current state it had no value at all.
In contrast to the Ukraine, where our administration had made itself rather unpopular,
Galicia had been extremely well administered. At the top of the administration was the
governor, SS-Gruppenführer Otto Wächter, an old-school Austrian. The district chiefs
were considered to be the best examples of the old Prussian county administrators. We
formed a complete division from Galician Ukrainian volunteers, and many other
Ukrainians fought alongside our divisions. In the later fighting one company of Ukrainian
volunteers distinguished itself in very heavy combat. There were many cases of separated
German soldiers who were hidden from the Russians and later returned to us. The district
chief of Rava-Ruska, a man named Mehring, was protected from the Russians by
Ukrainian volunteer troops that hid him in their camp in Germany. When the Russians
later forced the Ukrainians into their regiments, they defected to us in large numbers.
Galicia will always be a prime example of what Germany could have accomplished with a
reasonable eastern policy in the satellite states of Russia.72
Partisans
Up until the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 there had been almost no partisan
activity in Galicia. But as the front line moved farther west, Russian partisans moved into
the area. Because the Galicians were quite religious, Russian propaganda proclaimed that
no priest had to fear for his life because there was total religious freedom in the Soviet
Union. The churches would not be touched. Anything to the contrary was Nazi
propaganda.
The Ukrainians had formed their own strong partisan group—the Ukrainian Insurgent
Army, or UPA.73 They were neutral toward us and they fought against the Russians and
the Poles. They put most of their efforts into massacring Poles. We had no clear political
guidelines for dealing with them. Unlike some other commanders, I did not maintain any
contacts with the UPA and I made it clear that I would not tolerate any partisan activity in
my area of responsibility. That decision served me well. They avoided my corps sector
and every incident of resistance was countered with a direct attack. The Polish bands who
called themselves “White Eagle” were especially irksome. Galicia had long been
terrorized by the Poles. The “White Eagle” was a right-wing Polish organization that
completely misread what was coming at them from the East. They believed they were
going to be able to reestablish Poland’s prewar eastern border, and therefore terrorized the
Ukrainian population in an attempt to reassert control.74 There were also reports of Jewish
partisans, but they never appeared in my corps area.
The local population generally did not support any of the partisan groups, with the
exception of the Ukrainian UPA. Initially we could not get a clear picture of the situation.
Slowly many leads pointed toward our district headquarters in Zlochzow. Something was
wrong there. Too many identification cards from that agency were in circulation. There
also seemed to be a connection to a Soviet colonel who was somehow evading capture in
our rear area and supposedly was directing the partisans. I finally decided to get involved
directly. Early one morning I dissolved the Zlochzow district headquarters. We found the
commandant in bed with a Polish woman who was the station’s classified documents and
official stamps clerk.
An even bigger catch was the station commandant’s seemingly loyal assistant and
translator. His biography was quite interesting. His parents had emigrated from southern
Hungary to Austria. They supposedly were Serbs, or possibly Bunjevci (Catholic Serbs).
He himself was an Austrian first lieutenant during World War I. On 4 October 1918 he
became an intelligence officer in a clandestine Polish army. When Poland was finally
consolidated, he became the owner of a large estate near Rivne in the Polish Ukraine. That
was in the part of Poland that the Russians seized in 1939. Claiming to be an ethnic
German, he was repatriated to German-controlled Poland and was compensated for his
losses in the Ukraine with a large estate near Kutno.
As a Wehrmacht volunteer, he eventually became a first lieutenant and the official
translator of the Zlochzow district headquarters. In that capacity he had formed a security
guard force from Poles imprisoned at Jarosław and Przemyśl. That force was supposed to
guard a lignite mine near Lwów, but it actually pillaged and burned down Ukrainian
villages, murdering and raping in the process. Breeding cattle that supposedly were saved
from the Russians ended up on his estate in Kutno. His operations were little more than a
continuation of the old Polish policies in the Ukraine.
The court-martial proceedings ended in long-term prison sentences for both officers.
The president of the court-martial believed that he was not allowed to call Ukrainian
witnesses against the two defendants—even though I told him in very clear terms that I
would take the full responsibility for violating the policy. Believing that far stiffer
punishment was called for, I appealed the sentence. But there was no new trial. The
Ukrainian witnesses were no longer available because most of them were now living in
Russian-controlled territory.
As long as I was the corps commanding general, I kept the case open. The Polish squire
was sent to the Germersheim Fortress on the Rhine. In 1945 he became a prisoner of the
Russians, but for some reason they released him early on. I ran into him again in the late
1950s during General von Manteuffel’s trial for having a deserter shot. Our Polish hero
was still trying to manipulate me even then.75
The common soldier generally has a keen sense of when something smells rotten.
Accordingly, the dissolution of the Zlochzow district headquarters was met with
spontaneous breakouts of applause. Not a very soldierly reaction, perhaps, but a clear
indicator that something had been very rotten there. The soldier wants to be protected
from such elements, whose activities he has to pay for with his blood.
On 4 May I noted in my journal: “The partisan bands are getting nervous. They are
starting to dissolve.”
And on 27 May: “For about four weeks now the corps area has been free of partisan
bands—a nice supplemental success. I never entered into a pact with anybody. First the
UPA helped to destroy the Polish and Russian bands, and then we pressured the UPA to
move out.”
Our worst enemy was always our own administrative offices. They had no
understanding of the big picture. They were incapable of broad thinking, and their
enforcement of standards was lax. The rear will always be the rear.76 You can try to
change it by altering its dishonorable name, but the stigma cannot be erased. This is not
just a problem in our military.
On 9 June I wrote: “This should be an opportunity to clear up the Ukrainian question.
We must face the fact that we have made huge mistakes. We should build on the brilliantly
conducted Ukraine policy of the General Government of Poland. We should try to
establish peace with the UPA under the condition that they accept German supreme
command. The political basis would be a free Ukraine, at best in a real union with
Germany. The UPA’s military activity in the rear of the Reds causes them a lot of
headaches. Hopefully, such a political decision will be made sometime soon. A satisfied
neighbor is worth more than a subjugated colony. Any local deal-making by subordinate
agencies is a mistake. I kept my area totally free of it and we have no gang activity, neither
by the Reds, nor the Poles, nor by the UPA. My corps area is apparently the most pacified
of all.”
Field Marshal Model
Field Marshal Walther Model, Manstein’s successor, visited us on 1 May. That evening I
wrote in my journal: “Brief, clear, knows his business. Disadvantage: a little jumpy. In the
detail there is sometimes a lack of consistency. But much energy and firm will. Far above
average.”
On 18 May I wrote: “General Raus, my superior officer, and I talked about Model. On
the one hand, in his impulsive, jumpy way he creates a lot of disruption; on the other hand
he accomplishes some significant things and he is conducting the defensive preparations at
large and in detail very well. Some things you would not accept in more peaceful times are
his interference in your responsibilities. Now he carries a huge responsibility and you have
to accept some things.”
Model’s strength was that he put himself on Hitler’s good side. He staked out his
political position very clearly by making an SS officer his aide-de-camp, which naturally
irritated all who were too ignorant to understand what he was doing. The fact that Model
got everything he wanted from Hitler, which in turn helped the troops immensely, was a
point that went right by his critics. Finally we had a senior leader who was not constantly
mistrusted by Hitler. Generals Hans Hube and Eduard Dietl had been able to get along
with Hitler, but they unfortunately were killed in airplane crashes. Soon, however, a strong
point of disagreement arose between Model and me.
Unlike during World War I, the German Army was no longer a learning and adaptive
organization. As a result, we faced the forthcoming defensive battle without a set of clear
and consistent tenets. Model so far had succeeded by conducting strong, linear, but well
thought out defensive tactics. My deductions from the defensive battles in the East were
different, and we were now facing the mass of the Russian shock armies. The Russians
had been able to penetrate every linear defense that was based on the holding of the
forwardmost lines because they could mass their forces at the decisive point without the
risk of being encircled by our weak forces.
In contrast to Model, I wanted to conduct the main defense in the depth, far back from
the effective range of the enemy’s artillery. Weak advance guards would be used to screen
our main positions. The mass of every division was to be positioned in depth, ready to
counterattack at any time to retake lost advance guard positions, or as a reserve to be
deployed laterally to any developing trouble spot. Ruses were naturally essential, as were
strongly manned advance positions at night and demonstrations with strong artillery
forces. Assault detachments of tanks strongly supported by artillery would conduct deep
raids into the enemy positions. Of course, such tactics would require the troops to conduct
a great deal of energy-sapping back and forth movements.
Unlike Model, I never wanted to commit additional Panzerjäger77 battalions to
reinforce the forwardmost lines, but rather to hold them back as a mobile reserve to mass
at the decisive point. Although we disagreed, Model still made the decisions and issued
the orders, which I carried out. There was never any question on this basic command
principle. But Model nonetheless created a lot of turmoil among the troops during his
countless visits to the front line. He often gave conflicting orders and did not always use
the appropriate tone when speaking to people. The troops did not know how to take him.
Through his adjutant I let Model know that I thought it was necessary to have a face-toface conversation. He arrived the next day. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he
continued to upset already nervous troops prior to a defensive battle, they would then fail
in the coming fight. My corps’ divisions were in good shape, they had always performed
above average, and they would continue to do so in the future. Continuous riling up of the
troops would only lead to the opposite.
Model listened to everything quietly, and he agreed with me on a lot of points. He
never visited my corps again. He accepted our discussion in the old-fashioned Prussian
way by not taking it personally. Quite the contrary, on every appropriate occasion Model
was always one of the first to send a friendly congratulatory telegram. I have always given
Model great credit for his human and professional conduct. I later wrote in my journal:
“Working with Model is not easy on any level. He is very jumpy. He does not listen to
anybody and he makes no contact with his subordinates. He is a bad psychologist. His
‘Stakhanov System’78 approach does nothing to develop the leadership traits [of his
subordinates]. But he leaves my corps alone since I bared my teeth. The troops found him
unbearable.”
Innere Führung 79
The innere Führung concept is not a new development of the postwar era. It has always
been there, but if it is applied incorrectly the troops will fail. The wisdom of this principle
was understood ages ago, and all reasonable military leaders acted accordingly. Some
were masters of the principle, others were solid craftsmen, and some were bunglers—as
can be expected in any human process. The forms of innere Führung must be adapted to
the social conditions of the people. It is only natural that there will be some psychological
tensions in any military service designed with young soldiers in mind but led by older
superiors. Likewise, there will be similar tensions for older soldiers who were well
established in civilian life and now have to serve under much younger superiors. In
Germany’s past there was an effort to accommodate the older soldiers by forming them
into Landwehr80 divisions under older, calmer leadership, and tasking those units with less
strenuous missions. But during World War I the situation made this system impossible,
and the young and the old were mixed together in units of every branch. That often created
much tension. Many of these tensions were overcome through the sheer force of military
authority, but it is far better to avoid such situations if at all possible.
I always considered innere Führung to be one of my particular strengths. Anyone with
years of experience as a young lieutenant commanding companies in combat could only
have done so by developing a good sense of innere Führung. I believe I had that sense. But
innere Führung does not mean being soft and always giving in. The Landser81 would find
that quite funny and try to take advantage. It requires toughness where necessary, but also
an ability to understand and empathize with the soldier on the line.
The feeling for the troops one develops as a company commander also serve him once
he becomes a division commander. You live closely with the troops and know when to
tighten up and when to relax a little.82 At the higher echelons, however, it is a little
different. When I took over the corps, I set up a special field post box number to which
anyone could write with “ideas for improvement.” That, of course, was a euphemism. The
real purpose of the post box was to provide an outlet for troops to express their concerns
privately. If you can talk or write about something that is bothering you, it becomes easier
to bear and sometimes the problem sorts itself out. Everyone who wrote in received a
detailed answer that was either signed by my chief of staff, Mellenthin, or in difficult
situations by me personally. Using this system, we were able to resolve some especially
touchy situations without resort to court-martial or disciplinary action. It was not always
easy to convince the division commanders that dealing with those cases head-on with fire
and brimstone would not necessarily produce the best results. The concept of working
without detailed reports and outside of the military justice system was unfathomable to
many. But so long as discipline was tightly maintained, which was the essential
precondition, no damage was done in the long run. I used this system with great success
right until the end of the war. Fortunately, all my chiefs of staff supported the approach
enthusiastically.
We also established a corps rest and relaxation center in a wonderfully located castle.
Since we were no longer dealing with partisan actions we had the flexibility to do that.
The center did not have an immediate military supervisor, a nun actually managed it. It
was only for NCOs and enlisted soldiers, and the rigid formalities of the chain of
command were suspended during their stay. We selected those to rotate in and out not by
name, but by duty position, such as “machine gunner, 1st Platoon, 3rd Company, X
Grenadier Regiment, X Division.” This way we ensured that only the frontline troops and
not the clerks got to go.
Some objected to the fact that there would be no officer in charge of the center and
predicted all sorts of resulting catastrophes. But I had always believed in leave policies
based on one’s word of honor. The German frontline soldier never once disappointed me. I
visited the center often, speaking to the soldiers. The nun never complained about any of
the troops and not even the smallest incident ever occurred.
We also established what we called “training sessions” at the corps headquarters. Every
four to five days approximately sixty men from all the divisions came in as guests. Their
selection was handled like the visits to the rest center. After they arrived they were given a
good meal, a good night’s sleep until the next day, a bath, a movie, and an open discussion
period. It was a pleasure to see how openly our troops spoke. Everyone also received
airmail postage for a special letter home, and in some rare cases a telephone call to family
members. I also encouraged the subordinate divisions to establish a rest center for every
battalion close behind the front line.
A newly established corps newspaper created an additional channel of communications
for the frontline soldiers. In it, tactics and techniques and other matters were discussed that
were not always passed along the chain of command to every soldier. We also established
contests for such things as the best camouflaged battery position, with the winners
receiving an extra ration of comfort items. Such unconventional indirect measures often
produced results that could not have been achieved solely through the workings of the
chain of command.
Daily visits to the front line were also an element of my approach to innere Führung. I
made it a habit after the comfort items were issued to go to the front line and to ask when
the last time was that the troops had received them. The simple fact that I was asking
about these items in the forwardmost positions invariably ensured their proper distribution
without the necessity of having to resort to disciplinary action.
Troop hygiene was always a concern. The general slacking-off also affected the
medical officers. The idea of making a daily walk-through of the complete sector checking
on hygiene was foreign to some unit surgeons. Venereal disease has been a problem with
all the armies of history. My World War I commander, Kirchheim, told me that when he
was in Southwest Africa in 1913 the state secretary for colonial affairs visited the country.
The local missionaries approached him with complaints about the troops having been
issued means of birth control, which they said was contrary to Christian mores and
morality. The state secretary sided with the troops.
When cases of venereal disease occurred in my company in 1914 near Łódź, I ordered
every man in my platoon to have the appropriate medication with him at all times and
enforced this relentlessly. During my entire time as a company commander during World
War I, I had only two cases of venereal disease. Years later grateful wives of soldiers still
thanked me for the care I gave to my soldiers. Interestingly, when British field marshal
Bernard Montgomery was the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division at the start of the
war, he had the same policy, but he was forced to rescind his order under pressure from the
British bishops.83
I often took my corps finance officer and my corps surgeon with me, because it was
impossible for those officers to perform their duties without keeping in touch with the
forward lines. Just as my divisional surgeon had done in the Gross-Deutschland Division,
I wanted to establish a kind of frontline medical school at the corps level. Unfortunately, I
ran into stiff resistance and I could not find a capable medical officer to run it, so I had to
abandon the project. Since I was not an expert in the field of medicine, I could not do
something like that myself.
It was also of the greatest importance that in all the subordinate divisions we
established noncommissioned officer academies to train the new NCOs. After almost five
long years of war and with approximately fifty thousand officers killed, the leadership
layer was wearing thin indeed.
The Enemy and the Overall Situation
We knew little about the enemy at this point. We were certain, however, that an offensive
would come. Thanks to the human masses available to the Russians, they had established
to our front a human screen that made it difficult for us to determine what they had farther
back. We did send reconnaissance probes deep into the enemy’s territory, but he usually
withdrew immediately before we could reach him. One deep recon probe conducted by
two battalions and supported by forty batteries and numerous tanks failed to produce any
useful intelligence. Finally, some defectors reported the redeployment of strong forces to
Belorussia. When the attack started there, we knew that they would be trying to draw off
our reserves. We were certain that the enemy’s main effort would be right where we
were.84
But their attack in Belorussia was a complete success, and as a result Model was
reassigned as commander of Army Group Center. He was replaced as commander of
Army Group North Ukraine85 by Colonel General Josef Harpe. Now I finally had a free
hand in my defensive tactics. Unfortunately, it was already late to be making major
changes quickly without over-stressing the system. Changes had to be made slowly and
carefully. Most importantly, I wanted to keep the majority of my infantry out of the
effective range of the enemy’s artillery. We were able to accomplish that without losing
the advance guard positions. All mine laying was done behind the advance post positions
throughout the depth of the battle zone. It proved extremely effective.
The morale of the troops was quite extraordinary, especially among the many foreign
troops that faithfully and courageously fought alongside us. Everywhere along the forward
line German soldiers and local troops from the Caucasus served side by side. We were
never disappointed. The troops from Galicia, who were rooted to their home soil, were
used initially in the rearward services and supply units. Once they proved themselves, we
deployed them farther forward into the combat units. When speaking with any soldier at
random, you had to be prepared for an answer in a foreign language. The
accomplishments of our armament industry were especially impressive. On 29 May I
wrote in my journal: “We had nothing after the winter battle, and now we are stronger than
ever.”
The coming invasion in the West naturally weighed heavily on us. There were,
however, many indicators that they might not come.86 Somebody supposedly in a position
to know reported Hitler as saying: “Everything is ready over there [across the English
Channel], however, there is nobody who will take the responsibility and give the order.
The responsibility is too heavy. I did not have the courage either in 1940.”
When on 6 June the invasion really did take place, the subsequent course of the fighting
in the West turned out very disappointing. We definitely understood that the final decisive
battle had now started.
The Final Days
Following on the invasion in the West, the large-scale Russian attack in Belorussia was
coming as well. Our quiet days were numbered. On 17 May the other side started up its
propaganda campaign, targeting our troops with broadcasts of music and “We are
coming!” slogans. The effect was restlessness along the whole front.
15 June: “Everything continues to be calm here. The Russians do not seem to be eager
to attack yet. From their standpoint that is absolutely understandable. Let the AngloAmericans rectify the situation initially. Until then Russia can restore order to its severely
worn-down army and can come back fresh.”
20 June: “The Russians attacked the forward lines of the 375th Infantry Division today,
around contour lines 394 to 401.87 It was tough fighting, during which the hill changed
hands several times. Things are getting a little uncomfortable.”
22 June: “A defector told us that his division is moving to Belorussia. If that is true, the
entire Russian activity in our area is a feint.”
5 July: “All signs point at an impending large-scale attack, maybe as soon as tomorrow
morning. Difficult decisions must be made—evasive actions, artillery countermeasures,
etc. Too early is just as bad as too late. You have to rely on your sixth sense. There is no
room for mistakes. We displaced the corps command post from our castle and into a
forest.”88
6 July: “Yesterday it still looked like it was just about to happen, but today everything
is quiet. During the night from 5 to 6 July we fired two strong artillery counterpreparations against enemy command posts and lines of departure.”
Map 13. Galicia, 13 July 1944. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
8 July: “It is still quiet. Yesterday the enemy, preceded by a strong artillery barrage,
broke through my left flank division. By the evening we had thrown them back, inflicting
in the process heavy enemy losses of 136 killed. Prisoners stated that [the offensive] will
start on the 10th or 11th. Today it was absolutely quiet, which is an indicator that it will
soon begin. Today we again fired from dummy artillery positions to mislead the
Russians.”
11 July: “Will they come or not? The waiting is horrible. We have made ourselves
weak in the front and strong in the rear, but we cannot keep this up forever. Sooner or later
the Russians will realize it, and then they will come.”
12 July: “A defector reports that the attack is imminent. He had been ordered to clear
mines.”
13 July: “Attacks in platoon to battalion strength along the whole front. The enemy is
filling in his trenches. It looks as if it is really starting now. His main attack will hit my
corps squarely. Hopefully, the new main line of resistance we established will come as an
effective surprise to the Russians. I am completely confident, fully knowing what will be
thrown at us, material-wise.”
The Storm Breaks
On 14 July at 0420 hours the Russian infantry charged forward, following a one-hour
artillery barrage. The main objective of their attack was the 357th Infantry Division, which
was unfortunately not the strongest. The southern flank of the 349th Infantry Division was
also affected. While the 349th Infantry Division countered the situation with a swift and
decisive counterattack, the 357th attacked too late. Unfortunately, they were also unclear
in their reporting. We identified Mshanets and Oliiv as the objectives of the Russian points
of main effort. At 0930 while reconnoitering forward I concluded that the 357th Infantry
Division by itself could not stop the breakthrough that was imminent.
I requested the commitment of the two divisions of the III Panzer Corps that were
positioned behind my front line. Since the two Russian attack axes were predictable, both
divisions had clear outlines of their missions. They had reconnoitered and identified their
approach routes. The initial commitment was controlled by the III Panzer Corps, after
which operational control of the two divisions passed to me. According to plan, the 1st
Panzer Division advanced spaced out and away from the major roads. It reached its
objective and executed its mission there by pushing back the Russian breakthrough.
Everything went differently for the 8th Panzer Division.
The 8th Panzer Division was supposed to reach the enemy’s breakthrough points north
of Zolochiv by going through the woods to conceal its movements from enemy air. I had
put the main highway from Zolochiv to Ibotar to Ikclierna off limits because it was
obvious that everything that moved on that road would be a target for the Russian Air
Force. The town of Zolochiv and all the other towns along that road had been evacuated.
After the completion of the evacuation had been reported to me, I had it continuously
checked. Thus, I hoped that any attacks by the Russian Air Force would hit empty ground.
Map 14. Destruction of the 8th Panzer Division, 14 July 1944. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
Unfortunately, the commander of the 8th Panzer Division decided without my
knowledge to advance his division via Zolochiv on the main road, because it would be
faster. And as anticipated, the Russian Air Force caught the division on the main road and
hit it so hard that it was combat ineffective for the next forty-eight hours. This catastrophe
was most likely the result of the chain of command system established by the
commanding general of III Panzer Corps.89
Following the completely unnecessary destruction of the 8th Panzer Division, the
Russians thrust forward through the woods. The 14th SS Volunteer Division, which was
positioned perpendicular to the Russian advance, simply dissolved without a fight. They
had not been combat ready to begin with, and large numbers of their German cadre
personnel were away at various training courses.90
Thus, the advancing Russians managed to avoid what was still at that point the fully
equipped and manned 8th Panzer Division. They thrust deep into our rear areas and
encircled the XIII Army Corps. At the XLVIII Panzer Corps it took us a few hours to
recognize the situation. We were assuming that the III Panzer Corps’ two divisions would
stabilize the situation. The information about the failure of the 8th Panzer Division hit us
like a bomb. It was clear to me that there was something wrong at the divisional leadership
level. I relieved the division commander and sent my proven chief of staff, Colonel von
Mellenthin, to assume command of the 8th Panzer Division and to attack from the south,
northward into the Russian flank, and to close the gap to the 349th Infantry Division. It
was the only thing that could be done at that point. But that also meant that I had to work
in this highly tense situation without a chief of staff.
On 15 July I wrote in my journal: “The battle is raging, that is the only word that comes
to mind. There is no other way to describe it. It is a battle of attrition like we have not seen
before on the eastern front. So far, everything has gone well. The 357th Division with the
support of the 1st Panzer Division managed to halt the breakthrough. At the 349th
Division the situation looks worse, but for the time being seems stable. The only
breakthrough has been along the boundary between the 349th Division and the 357th
Division, but today the 8th Panzer Division will get there and that currently weak
defensive line should hold for now. For two days now we have been fighting one of the
hardest attritional battles in history, and so far we have prevented a decisive breakthrough.
That is a solid accomplishment. If we can continue like this, we can be very proud.”
After one of my daily visits to the front line I wrote: “An aerial attack on a scale I have
not seen before. Everything is shaking and rolling. In its battle report the 1st Panzer
Division wrote that such a massed concentration of materiel, specifically tanks, heavy and
super heavy artillery, bombers, fighter aircraft, etc., has been unprecedented up to this
point on the eastern front. Hourslong, massed artillery fire is now a daily occurrence. The
enemy’s air force has restricted us to only nighttime supply movements to our combat
units.”
16 July: “The situation turned ugly overnight. Only now do we recognize the full
impact of the disaster at the 8th Panzer Division. In order to get the 1st Panzer Division
out I moved my two right divisions back across the Strypa River. By the evening we had
succeeded. We had not lost an inch of ground. In three days we destroyed 150 enemy
tanks and 300 aircraft. We also managed to get the 8th and 1st Panzer Divisions ready to
attack north in the direction of Nushche, toward the 349th Infantry Division.”
On 17 July the wreck of a human being sat in front of me, the likes of which I have
never seen before, nor since. The commander of the 8th Panzer Division had not slept or
eaten for three days. He was smoking constantly. It was horrible. Although I would just as
soon not write about this, I have my reasons for including it. He was an especially good,
very smart, well-educated, and highly qualified officer; a shrewd General Staff officer; an
accomplished Panzer leader. He had always received glowing evaluation reports from top
Panzer commanders; but he nonetheless was a second-rate man. He himself could not be
blamed for his misfortune. He was a victim of the flawed selection system within our
General Staff. Although he was full of personal integrity, he did not have that harmonious
union of strengths that Clausewitz wrote about. Intelligence with nothing else to support it
is a curse.
Unfortunately, during both world wars nobody thought it was necessary to develop a
system to test the performance of General Staff officers in order to guide how they were
evaluated, how they were assigned, and where and why they were successful or why they
failed. The General Staff officer can never become just a pure desk soldier with an
automatic claim to the highest command positions. He also must be a good frontline leader
with as many years of experience as possible. Part of the flaw in the system was the
tendency to fill every possible key position with General Staff officers. They all should
have experience serving in the front lines. Periodic administrative assignments are also
quite useful for developing line officers. The blood that the troops shed obligates us not to
avoid addressing this problem head-on. This, then, is my reason for reopening this old and
festering wound. It has not been my intention to condemn and pile the guilt on a perfectly
honorable officer who believed that he was doing his best.
20 July 1944
The Seer of Berezhany
During my visits to the front before the Russian attack I observed that people everywhere
were on the move. They all wanted to save themselves from the Russians. The roads were
full of people heading out on foot and in wagons. The closer you got to Berezhany the
thinner the stream became, until it stopped completely near the town. What was the
reason? Near Berezhany there lived a wise woman. Long before the First World War she
had predicted a decisive battle in eastern Galicia in which four peoples, Germans,
Austrians, Hungarians, and Turks, would conquer the Russians. And indeed the Germans,
Austrians, Hungarians, and the Turkish I Army Corps did defeat the Russians in 1916–
1917 along the Gniła Line and at Solota Lipa. While the woman was first laughed at, her
fame grew immensely after her impossible prediction came true. Recently she had made
another prophecy: “If the Germans can hold until 20 July, then they will have won the war.
On 20 July I see blood, blood, and more blood. It will be a horrible scene in the Kremlin.
20 July will be the turning point to victory.” This time everyone believed her.
Unfortunately, she had erred in exactly the opposite direction.
The Assassination Attempt
The events of 20 July 1944 struck us all like thunder. We were in the middle of the
heaviest fighting, and now there was revolution at home. It could have meant the end of
the Ostheer.91 As far as I could tell at the time, there was hardly anybody in the
responsible military leadership who would have sympathized with—let alone supported—
those who attempted the assassination. When I drove to all my subordinate divisions on 21
July I was greeted almost everywhere with the “deutscher Gruss.”92 Up to that point the
Hitler salute had been mandatory for civilians, but optional for the military. We retained
the traditional military salute.93 But anyone who knew how to read the salutes of the
soldiers could understand how they felt by their spontaneous use of the Hitler salute. On
the outside, at least, the soldiers clearly sided with Hitler. Later, while in Allied captivity, I
had a conversation with a colonel who had been a corps chief of staff on the western front.
He had been closely connected to the events of 20 July, and he was a staunch opponent of
National Socialism. He told me that anyone during those days who would have stood in
front of the troops in an attempt to lead them against Hitler would have been killed. But
when the coup failed, the domestic political situation was brought under control
immediately and stability was restored.
Personalities and Causes
When a dictatorship suffers military or political failures, elements of the population will
react against it. When Napoleon suffered his first defeat near Aspern in 1809, the tensions
were similar to what the Germany Army experienced in 1944. French minister of police
Joseph Fouché sent a message from Paris to the opposition elements in the army: “We
cannot start this from here. If you have even twelve determined men, then strangle him in
bed, put him in a sack, and throw him in the Danube. Then everything will be good.”
The tension between Hitler and the generals had been simmering for a long time. The
constraints that Hitler had put on the most capable of our leaders, Field Marshal von
Manstein, were seen as the cause for the severe setbacks in the East, and justifiably so.
Nonetheless, the number of Hitler’s interventions was not nearly as high as popular legend
now describes it. I experienced much the same thing on my level. On most of my visits to
the front I made a record of all the orders that I had supposedly given, some of which
would raise anybody’s blood pressure. I also kept a careful record of all cases where
Hitler’s intervention had restricted my actions. Other commands may have experienced
more direct interference because Hitler’s mistrust caused him to intervene wherever he
could not overcome his lack of confidence in certain commanders. The inability to trust
was one of Hitler’s key characteristics, and a big handicap.
Leadership means trusting the man on the front line. Unfortunately, that was missing all
too often. In all fairness, however, this situation was not completely Hitler’s fault. It was a
process of action and reaction. While the conditions along the front line were still
tolerable, the environment in the circles closest to Hitler was extremely tense and
unbearable. The rebellion, therefore, grew out of his immediate military circle, out of the
ranks of OKH.
The leadership of the eastern front was hardly involved in the putsch. We were
involved in the heaviest fighting of the war and we knew that a putsch would mean the
end for Germany. While in captivity after the war a circle of about twenty generals
discussed the pros and cons of the attempted coup. I interjected that had the putsch been
successful, the eastern front would have collapsed. Then, following good old German
practice, everyone would have tried to save his own skin. Half of those gentlemen agreed
with me, the other half interjected that the eastern front could have never dissolved
because it was tied down by the enemy. Those generals who agreed with me had extensive
frontline experience. The ones who disagreed had never or only infrequently commanded
on the front line.
While the attitude toward the putsch on the eastern front was for the most part
unambiguous, the attitude on the western front was different. Those who clearly could not
handle the unique stress on the eastern front were transferred into equivalent key positions
on the western front. Some of them did not accept the real reasons for their transfers. I will
not, however, say that the policy was a failure. Personal criticisms should stop where the
conditions are so difficult that they are beyond the control of those affected. Once out of
the stress of the battle, things look much different.
Stauffenberg
I had known Stauffenberg well for a long time. We had been assigned to the same cavalry
brigade. I often had many pleasant conversations with this intelligent man who was highly
educated in history. It was most interesting when he talked about superstitions and
supernatural sensations. Later, when I was general of the mobile troops and Stauffenberg
was working in the Organizational Department, we met frequently during duty hours and
off duty. Stauffenberg was not at all a second stringer. With his personality he was
destined for the highest of positions. He embodied to the utmost what Clausewitz called
the harmonious union of strengths.
As long as I was at OKH, Stauffenberg as far as I knew was not an opponent of the
system. He was determined, like all of us, to bring matters to a successful conclusion.
Ironically, he shared some personal characteristics with Hitler: a certain genius; an interest
in history; independent judgment; and last but not least, an obsession with an idea. Their
eyes and their somewhat wild hair added to the similarity. Both were caught up in the
same mysticism. Hitler was convinced that providence had destined him to save and
elevate Germany. Stauffenberg held the somewhat peculiar opinion for a General Staff
officer that in every war there is a culminating point, and if you can seize it, you will win
the war. In the previous war that point had been Salonika and in this one North Africa. I
think that Stauffenberg went to Tunisia as a divisional General Staff officer with a certain
missionary zeal.94 When he was severely wounded he also must have been wounded on
the inside, which then resulted in his “Road to Damascus” conversion.95
It was certainly a different Stauffenberg after his recovery. I met with him on a visit to
Berlin, and we talked briefly in passing. Stauffenberg was now highly critical of the
regime. I asked him, “How do you want to turn it off? That can only be done with
violence, and there is the danger that the Ostheer will fall into Russian hands or the state
into the hands of the SS. We are for better or for worse tied to Hitler.”
But like Hitler, Stauffenberg had an eye for the visionary goals, while neglecting those
closer to home.
The Situation in Mid-1944
In my opinion there had not been the slightest possibility of the putsch succeeding. No
combat units—the only units that mattered—would have marched against Hitler at that
point. The conspirators themselves must have understood this well when they attempted to
spread the rumor that the SS had mutinied against Hitler. Nor were the conditions right in
the foreign policy arena. Although the Anglo-Americans were more than happy to see the
treasonous internal events unfold, they had no intention of letting go of their policy of
unconditional surrender and the consequent political and economic destruction of an
undesirable Germany. They fought against Germany, not against National Socialism.96
It is quite possible that the Soviets would have been the beneficiaries of Stauffenberg’s
action, had he succeeded. And I have my doubts that he could have remained immune
against a political sickness called Russophilia that got a hold of many German officers. I
speak only of Stauffenberg because of the influence his strong and dynamic personality
brought to bear on the heterogeneous senior leadership circles he moved in and which
would have swept him to the top quickly.
The Front Line
The front line was completely against the assassination attempt. Not only the act itself, but
the way it was carried out, which killed a large number of innocent bystanders.97
Everyone agreed that strong retaliation was justified, but Hitler, as usual, overreacted.
When those involved in the plot were hanged like dishonored criminals, rather than
receiving the soldierly bullet from a firing squad, the mood shifted.98 “Allzu scharf macht
schartig.”99
Personal Conviction
Many years have passed since 20 July 1944. Nothing has convinced me yet that my earlier
judgment was wrong. Today, I consider myself to have been lucky that I was not drawn
into the conspiracy personally and that I was totally unaware of the preparations. In
retrospect it became clear to me that General Staff officer Colonel Eberhard Finckh had
sounded me out during a series of conversations.100 These careful probes stopped
immediately when I did not respond properly. I must concede, however, that for a man like
Stauffenberg, with his education, his personality, his worldview, and his sense of
responsibility, he acted as he saw right. I have no way of knowing if his act followed from
sober deliberation or from fanaticism and mysticism. The fact that the conspiracy could
not be kept secret for much longer must have added to the pressure to act. Germans,
unfortunately, are talkative. My opinion of some of the others involved in the conspiracy
is not so positive, but I will always hold Stauffenberg in honorable remembrance.101
Back to the Everyday Life
Overall, the events of 20 July had only a marginal effect on those of us on the front lines.
Our daily situation with its tensions and crises demanded our full attention. The XLVIII
Panzer Corps had held its front line well, while conducting a fluid defense. Our losses
were sustainable. We were closely tied in with the adjacent units on our right. The most
frustrating thing was the gap that had developed with the adjacent unit on our left, the
result of the failure of the 8th Panzer Division. The Russians were pouring through the gap
with everything available to destroy the XIII Army Corps on our left.
Now under the command of my chief of staff, Mellenthin, the 8th Panzer Division
attempted but failed to close the gap. Anticipating this move, the Russians had established
an impenetrable antitank defensive line. The Russians had learned their lessons and drew
the right conclusions from our earlier tactics. But the enemy pressure was diminishing in
our corps sector, so I pulled the front line back in order to unite the 1st and 8th Panzer
Divisions, and then support the XIII Army Corps. The following excerpts from my journal
illustrate the kinds of problems we had to deal with:
21 July: “The morning was unpleasant. No contact with any of the divisions. In
addition, march movements are difficult on the muddy roads. Slowly the picture becomes
clearer. The south and the middle are holding. In the north the 8th Panzer Division
established contact with the XIII Army Corps. The 1st Panzer Division also made good
progress moving north. One group under Major Zahn particularly distinguished itself.
Making a bold, energetic move into Peremyshlyany, it cut the supply line of the Russian
VIII Motorized Corps.”
22 July: “Not a great day. Bad news followed more bad news. The withdrawal through
the mountain terrain with its poor roads is extremely difficult for the troops and their
leaders. The congestion is horrible. We have too much materiel forward for the available
road network. Bringing it all back is an almost unsolvable task. In the afternoon General
[Otto] Lasch, commander of the 349th Division, managed to break out with approximately
five thousand men and link up with us.”
24 July: “The divisions have been compressed into the smallest of areas. No supply
lines are open. Only with great difficulty was I able to move through to organize the
occupation of the Gnila-Lipa position.”
A stream of troops from the XIII Army Corps poured through that position. They had
broken out of the encirclement toward the south. The morale of the troops seemed high,
but they were completely physically exhausted. Some were without boots and they moved
along sluggishly. Some of them pulled dogs along on leashes. Interspersed in the column
were Russian kitchen maids wearing steel helmets and carrying hand grenades, who
fought courageously right alongside the troops. During the last storm assault the Russians
overran everything. All general officers had been in the forward lines at the time. General
Arthur Hauffe, the corps commander, was killed along with his chief of staff. Altogether,
between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand men seemed to have made it through.
25 July: “All is quiet in our sector. Unfortunately, the adjacent unit to my south caved
in, endangering our only supply route. These have been the most difficult situations that I
have lived through in war. The many unnecessary frictions make matters worse. The 1st
and 8th Panzer Divisions were supposed to be supplied by air. As the aircraft roared in low
above us, our own light FLAK guns promptly shot two of them down. The rest of the
aircraft dumped our urgently needed fuel over the Russian lines.”
26 July: “We have lived through the most difficult of times. We succeeded in supplying
the divisions and getting them out of the difficult mountain forest terrain. My hat off to all
the General Staff officers. The strain on the nerves has been immense, especially since we
knew that the Russians only had to start moving to destroy us. Thank God they remained
idle!”
On 28 July the XLVIII Panzer Corps stood unbroken on the west side of the Dniester
River. Our losses in men and equipment were bearable. All the subordinate divisions were
fully combat ready. We had pulled off the most difficult of operations. We took a deep
breath.
To Be or Not to Be
One should never judge matters too early. The XI Army Corps and the Hungarian Second
Army to the right of us collapsed. That gravely threatened the Stryi–Skole–Mukachevo
road, the main artery of my corps. If the Russians cut that line it would be impossible to
withdraw any equipment or to supply the troops. I drove to the adjacent units on my right.
The situation there was horrible. The Hungarians were throwing away their weapons
without fighting and were going home. Most of their leaders, doing nothing to reverse the
situation, were heading home as well.
On the evening of the 28th a Russian shock group, consisting of their 271st Division,
advanced through the Carpathian Mountains toward the road from Skole to Mukachevo.
An even stronger group advanced on the northern edge of the Carpathian Mountains
through Dolina toward the line Stryi–Skole. I immediately pulled back the 8th Panzer
Division and the 100th Jäger Division and sent them toward my right flank.
The Fourth Panzer Army had nothing available to help. It ordered the staffs of the XI
Army Corps and XLVIII Panzer Corps to exchange sectors. That was, admittedly, proof of
a high level of trust in us, but it was also an almost impossible task. The units we were to
assume command of included the 357th Infantry Division, which was across from Dolyna,
and north of them the 371st Infantry Division, with a huge forested area in its rear.
Somewhere forward in an echeloned formation still stood the very capable 1st Infantry
Division. We decided to move the German forces back into a rearward line and unite them
with the approaching 8th Panzer and 100th Jäger Divisions, and then to attack and destroy
the Russians advancing through Dolyna.
Meanwhile, as the Russian 271st Division was moving forward through the
Carpathians toward our lines of communication, we formed ad hoc blocking units from
the withdrawing human masses of the XIII Army Corps coming across the pass road. They
came under the command of the 36th Infantry Division and were committed from all sides
across the mountain ranges and against the flanks and the rear of the Russian 271st
Division. Artillery support was not necessary in the forested mountain terrain, and besides,
the attacking wedge formations committed against the rear of the isolated Red division
had to do whatever they could on their own by carrying through the direction of attack.
Battle of the Lions
The 371st Infantry Division was ordered to withdraw through the forested area to its rear,
and to secure this difficult terrain forward of their own front lines. The heavily committed
1st Infantry Division, meanwhile, was supposed to break through south of the forested
area and move toward us at night through open terrain. Against specific orders to avoid
the forest, and without reporting this to us, they broke through the woods and managed to
reach friendly lines. The morning after, the following reports came in:
371st Infantry Division: “Strong enemy forces struck the division’s withdrawal
movement. The division managed to reach the new positions without any loss in personnel
or equipment. The enemy suffered heavy losses.”
1st Infantry Division: “The division broke through the forested area without losses
against strong enemy resistance and is positioned along the designated line. The enemy
suffered heavy losses.”
As the old story goes: “Zwei Löwen gingen miteinand’ in einem Wald spazoren, da
haben beide wutentbrannt einander aufgezohren.”102 That can even be the case when two
combat-proven and highly accomplished units under the best leadership are involved.
“Interdum dormit Homerus.”103
The Decision
We had hoped to be able to bring everything forward for the counterattack. That all
depended on our ability to hold the front with the divisions that were in contact. The
ammunition status of the 1st Infantry Division was one of the biggest concerns at this
point. We were scheduled to attack at 0500 hours on 31 July. Earlier that night the
Russians attacked us, and near daybreak the troops were exhausted. The 8th Panzer and
357th Infantry Divisions reported at the same time and almost verbatim: “It is over. Total
collapse.” It looked like the fates of the XLVIII Panzer and XI Army Corps were sealed.
Unsurprisingly, the Fourth Panzer Army was nervous, which only compounded our
tensions.
In such a situation orders must be executed without compromise. I called both division
commanders and ordered, “. . . not a single step back. The division staffs into the
forwardmost lines.” I did not interfere with any other movements. Any initial Russian
success could not be taken too seriously. I did not think it was likely that they would try to
exploit their success. We attacked on schedule at 0500 hours on the 31st and overran the
enemy in and around Dolina. The 100th Jäger Division advanced as far as Wygoda. On 2
August we had passed the crisis. I recorded in my journal: “We can be satisfied. The
hopeless situation that I had inherited from the XI Corps has been turned around. The
Russian pincer arm has been destroyed. Their 271st Division is encircled near Kalna—a
ray of hope in these dismal days.”
3 August: “The battle is over. We opened the pocket and cleared it out. The Russian
271st [Division] was destroyed, their entire equipment captured. Surviving troops have
fled into the woods. The defeated enemy near Dolna no longer resists. We can conduct all
movements without interference.”
In addition to 1,860 counted enemy dead, we had destroyed or captured 13 tanks, 120
antitank guns, 61 field guns, 18 mortars, 165 machine guns, 57 motor vehicles, 216
prisoners and defectors, and a complete convoy of more than 200 vehicles. That evening
General Raus called me to express his relief. The Fourth Panzer Army later sent us a
telegram: “I commend leadership and troops of the XLVIII Panzer Corps for the action in
the vicinity Dolina Skola, which turned into a significant victory by adhering to a
decision. Signed Raus.”
Army Commander in Poland
After the agonies of the last few days I slept deeply. But one should never count the
chickens before they hatch. At 0500 hours I received a call from General Raus: “Proceed
immediately to OKH in East Prussia.” He did not know what was going on.
On the morning of 5 August I took a rather emotional farewell of my staff. I had grown
close with every one of them, especially my chief of staff, Colonel von Mellenthin. He had
been a never-failing pillar of strength. We were united by the same military and humanist
outlook. I went to the Fourth Panzer Army headquarters, where Raus gave me a most
touching farewell. Nine months of the heaviest fighting can bring people very close. I
thanked him for his incredible trust in me, which allowed the full development of my
strengths. He always covered my back.
I went past Mukachevo’s high tower, then past Cracow toward East Prussia. I had
known for quite a long time both Guderian, the new chief of the General Staff, and his
right-hand man, General Walther Wenck. I had a good impression of their working
relationship with Hitler, even though I knew that every superior has to appear optimistic
toward his subordinates and can never be critical. Otherwise the instrument will break in
his hands. When I reached OKH I learned that I was assigned command of the Fourth
Panzer Army.
The Situation
I flew to my new command post at the Fourth Panzer Army in Szydłowiec, passing over
the burning Warsaw, which was embroiled in an insurgency and the heaviest of
fighting.104 The situation was more than tense. The Russians had broken through on a
wide front on both sides of the Upper Vistula River. We had nothing between them and
Silesia. They had turned north and were threatening to roll up the Vistula Front from south
to north.
In the north the XLII Army Corps under General Hermann Recknagel, an undaunted,
courageous, and prudent leader, faced the Russians with the front line facing the south.
On their left flank stood the LVI Panzer Corps under General Johannes Block. That unit
was on the far side of the Vistula with its front line facing east. The Russians in that sector
had already gained some bridgeheads across the Vistula. Both corps consisted only of
infantry divisions. Of my units, the III Panzer Corps was assembling with the 3rd, 8th, and
17th Panzer Divisions, while my old XLVIII Panzer Corps was redeploying with the 1st,
16th, and 23rd Panzer Divisions.
The situation as I found it would have caused a sense of hopelessness in the typical
armchair strategist. On closer examination, however, things looked somewhat different.
The enemy was at the end of his strength after intense fighting and making enormous
advances. His supply lines were not functioning yet, while on our side the supply lines
were short and intact. Our supply bases were full and positioned right behind the front
lines, and reinforcements were coming in from all directions.
In short order the enemy advance exceeded its culmination point and the situation was
now favorable for a counterattack. It was exactly as Clausewitz had described it. The
situation was there to exploit, but the psychological strain of what was to come exceeded
even what we had experienced in the earlier part of the year.
Initial Fighting
The first thing to do was to hold the front line, and that could be done only by attacking.
The XLII Panzer Corps did this very well. In heavy fighting the corps destroyed 120
Russian tanks on 9 August and another fifty-six just a few days later. Russian tanks that
had broken through were hunted down and destroyed by pursuit detachments that were
committed everywhere on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, and even by Panzerfaustarmed105 troops in motor vehicles. These detachments were composed mostly of the
often-derided supply clerks and kitchen police. They performed heroically.
The fighting had its share of drama. For days the 72nd Infantry Division was cut off,
but it was able to break out with the support of the 23rd Panzer Division. They lost only
one artillery piece in the process. The Russians, however, reported that they had totally
destroyed three divisions. They also reported not having taken any prisoners because all
the Germans had been killed.
My plane trips to the front lines were also tense affairs, but it was only by using a
Storch that I could be at the right place and at the right time. On my first plane trip I was
sent off in the wrong direction and came under fire from Russian tanks when we landed. I
quickly jumped out of the aircraft when Russian scouts appeared to be firing at the Storch.
But then I jumped back in quickly and we took off. We had to start by turning directly
toward the Russian tanks. The Storch took five hits, but we got away. The pilot,
Feldwebel106 Moritz, was completely calm throughout.
The events of 20 July had hit the Fourth Panzer Army headquarters staff like a bomb.
The chief of staff was involved in the affair, and I was ordered to send him back to Berlin.
Upon assuming command I immediately noticed the lax, mechanical, and unmotivated
way that staff work was done. I requested and was assigned my old Mellenthin.
Transition to the Large-Scale Attack
In the meantime my two Panzer corps had been assembled and we launched an attack on
the Baranov bridgehead. Within just a few days it had been reduced to one third of its
original size, but we did not succeed in eliminating it. The Russian forces were too strong.
We estimated their strength at approximately four tank armies and one infantry army,
supported by strong air assets. Our own troops were also showing strong signs of wear and
exhaustion. The staffs were not leading from the battlefield anymore. Almost all of the
staffs had established their combat command posts in buildings. It was understandable,
then, that the troops attacked in only the most lax manner. At one division, with a good
reputation, I found all of the leaders of an infantry regiment committed to the attack
positioned inside houses and commanding by telephone. I had traveled forward on a
Kettenkrad107; I loaded them on it and drove them forward. Then I moved on. But the
commander cannot be everywhere all of the time. A newly arrived Tiger battalion lost
within twenty-four hours all but three of its forty-five Tigers because of technical
breakdowns. Almost daily I noted in my journal entries that the troops no longer
understood how to exploit initial successes.
By massing strong artillery fires we managed to eliminate a small Russian bridgehead
on our side of the Vistula, destroying a Russian division in the process. Only the division
commander reached the eastern bank of the Vistula by swimming back across. The
Russians were not the same anymore. They were suffering from the same difficulties we
were.
I must at this point pay honor to the memory of one man, the commanding general of
the XLVIII Panzer Corps, General of Panzer Troops Fritz-Hubert Gräser. Having
previously lost a leg to a severe wound, he commanded on a prosthetic leg. Because he no
longer had the agility to take cover quickly, and he always led from the front, a grenade
tore off his remaining leg. As soon as he had recovered he kept going on two prosthetic
legs and still led under fire in the most forward lines. His leadership was superb. He was
my successor at the Fourth Panzer Army, and commanded it until the end of the war.108
At the Führer’s Headquarters
On 8 and 9 September 1944 I was at the Führer’s headquarters, where Hitler awarded me
the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross.109 Hitler was very solicitous toward me, emphasizing
repeatedly how satisfied he was with my leadership. “Yes, that’s how it should be done,”
he repeated several times. Later, he personally arranged for me to fly back to my
headquarters with a fighter escort. Guderian also said that the fight had been “the first
offensively conducted defensive battle.”
I spoke with Hitler about the situation and the Russian advance on Bucharest. He said,
“Now they are moving toward their old objective, Constantinople, and then it will be our
turn, because that will turn England against them.”
“If they do that,” I responded, “they would have to let go of us and would be gambling
away all of their successes of the last years. First, they have to defeat us completely, then
Constantinople will fall into their lap by itself. I believe that they are going into Bucharest
now in order to finish us off first.”
Hitler looked at me for a long time and said: “You do not have the intelligence
information that I have.”
Later, after the end of the war, I spoke about this with Field Marshal Maximilian von
Weichs, who at the time had been the commander of Army Group F in the southeast. He
told me, “In effect, the English did not disrupt our withdrawal from Crete. Surfaced
English submarines moved alongside our transport ships, with their crews waving at our
people. I had the impression that England was glad to see the movement of German
divisions toward Bucharest.” The interpretation of intelligence is the most difficult of
tasks. It is so easy to believe what you want to believe.
I discussed the situation at large with Guderian. I explained that as long as we were
fighting in long thin lines and remained in an inflexible defense the Russians would mass
incredibly large forces at the points of attack, and we would not be able to hold. Between
those attack wedges we had almost nothing; but we were tying down our own major forces
in front of these screens. If we were able to shift into an attack posture, they too would
have to make themselves strong everywhere, and their attack wedges would have to be
dispersed. Guderian essentially agreed with me, but he was not yet clear on how to solve
the problem.
The overall situation only became clear to me after the war. In the Courland bridgehead
numerically inferior Russian forces tied down our garrison force. The Russians had
withdrawn almost everything from the Finnish front, where approximately two hundred
thousand Russians faced five hundred thousand Finns. Finnish officers were urging us to
take advantage of this situation. Unfortunately, the political dynamics were not right.
Finnish leader Carl Mannerheim was looking for a way out of the war, which was
understandable from his standpoint. He had no reason to support German policies and in
the end his own political path allowed Finland to survive as an independent state.
According to legend, Hitler after 20 July was hermetically sealed off and every visitor,
even generals, supposedly had to go through a body search before coming into his
presence. I never encountered anything of the sort. It was like it always had been. I was
never required to surrender my pistol while visiting Hitler; and if I had decided to use it,
nobody could have stopped me.
When I returned to my command post an intense battle was raging all around it. Our
Kalmyk Division110 was slugging it out with partisans. This was the first time that I had
heard of this peculiar unit. The fighting methods of the Kalmyks had not changed since
the times of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and had actually gotten worse. I asked the
commander of the eastern troops, General Ernst-August Köstring, to try to bring the
division under control, and shortly thereafter I had them reassigned.
Finale in Poland
On 12 September I wrote in my journal: “[The Fourth Panzer] Army’s situation is at this
time not at all unfavorable. We have won a defensive battle against the mass of Russian
tank forces. The enemy at this time has been weakened to the point that he will most likely
not be able to attack again within the next 10–14 days.” Actually, the Russians did not
resume attacking for another three to four months.
But we also realized that the front—I called it a “pretzel” front because of its shape—
could not be held in this manner. During my visit to the Führer Headquarters I
recommended to Guderian straightening the front line and moving it back twenty
kilometers, which thus would allow us to form all of our mobile forces into a reserve.
Guderian concurred, but Hitler vetoed it. So then we decided to straighten the front line by
moving forward, which in the process would eliminate the Russians’ Vistula bridgehead.
That option had definite advantages as well. As a precautionary measure I ordered the
improvement of the short line twenty kilometers back and had the area in front of it
cleared. According to Guderian’s memoirs, this line twenty kilometers to the rear later
played a fatal role in the conflict between him and Hitler.111
Dorotka
On 12 September we attacked the Dorotka bridgehead. The enemy was between four and
six divisions strong. Our attack was conducted with only six battalions, which had been
pulled out of the front lines earlier, well rested and especially trained for this mission.
Although we committed only a minimum number of infantry, we supported them with an
incredible amount of materiel.
The artillery preparation was conducted by the divisional artilleries of the 1st Infantry
Division, the 2nd Panzer Division, and the corps artillery units. The artillery assets of two
more divisions were pulled out, leaving one gun per battery in position. The withdrawn
guns fired in the preparation and then shifted back immediately to their old positions after
completion of the preparatory fires. The risk was manageable. The Russians usually did
not react that quickly. For the most part, they did not even detect the shifting back and
forth of our artillery.
The artillery was augmented by the fires of two rocket launcher brigades. At suitable
positions the engineers also dug emplacements for several hundred heavy howitzers.
Thank God we had an excellent senior artillery officer who was fully capable of managing
all of this.
After a fire strike of unprecedented intensity, the Panzers of two Panzer divisions thrust
through the bridgehead and cut it off from the rear. Simultaneously, the six battalions
supported by 120 assault guns attacked. We had massed for the attack all the available
assault guns in the Fourth Panzer Army.
During the battle we intercepted the following radio traffic:
A: “You will hold your position.”
B: “I am finished.”
A: “Reinforcements are on the way.”
B: “To hell with your reinforcements. I am cut off. Your great reinforcements will not
find anybody here.”
A: “For the last time. I prohibit you to transmit in the open. I would rather you would
shoot your own people than allow the enemy to do that.”
B: “Comrade 54, maybe you will grasp my situation when I tell you that there is
nobody left to shoot except my radio operator.”
It had been one of the most modern, if not the most modern, attack of the war. Here I
had for a change the opportunity to draw from the experiences of World War I, which
showed that war does not favor repeated patterns. All actions must be based on the
immediate situation. In the new positions we established along the Vistula River our daily
losses were reduced to a minimum. As soon as the situation had stabilized I took six days
of leave to visit my family in nearby Silesia. I had been at home only four days when I
received a call: “Report immediately to the Führer Headquarters. Follow-on assignment in
the West.”
My duties in the East had for now come to an end. But it was a closure in other ways,
too. We were now standing along the same line from which we started our attack on
Russia in 1941, meaning that we had lost the campaign against the Soviets.
Politics in the East
Wars are won and lost on the political level. Bismarck deserved at least as much credit as
Moltke for winning the Wars of German Unification. Within the framework of the
miserable Prussian politics of 1805–1806 the courageous Prussian Army had not been able
to accomplish anything. And what did the situation look like now? The campaign in the
East had been based on a completely false political assumption. Hitler, whose view of the
world had been formed by World War I, never moved beyond the mind-set of the
infantryman on the western front. He considered the Russians a dumb, amorphous herd,
without a sense of technology and who needed a leader and a master who could lead and
control the masses.
The cruelties of the Bolshevik Revolution only added to Hitler’s misconceptions. The
conclusion was that we were a master race, they were subhumans, and the result would be
a German imperium in the space of Eastern Europe. Hitler was encouraged by many
people who never disagreed with him. Our chances might have been different if our
policies had been liberation and independence for the countries on the periphery; no
territorial acquisitions; the overthrow of Bolshevism; and all the land to the farmers in a
free Russia. In many parts of the East we actually had been welcomed as liberators at first.
This had been the case in the Baltic States, in eastern Galicia, and in the Caucuses.
The instant abolition of the Kolkhoz112 system would have produced favorable results
for us too. But our administrators generally were incapable of dealing with the required
tasks in a foreign land and under conditions they only vaguely understood. Wherever our
administration was good, as in eastern Galicia, the population stood loyally behind us. At
times it felt like we were fighting on home territory. If our administration in the Ukraine
had been all that poor, the Ukrainian people who fled from the Russians would not have
shielded our former area commander of Rava-Ruska, Mehring, for so long, eventually
getting him back to safety. General von Pannwitz with his Cossack troops was another
example of what might have been possible, had we pursued a reasonable political policy in
the East. We could not have won the war by military means alone. Soldiers, politicians,
and economists should have worked hand-in-hand based on a reasonable, common
concept.
Was the campaign in the East necessary? At the time the situation was not all that clear.
Fear was likely a key factor. When after the campaign in the West we redeployed divisions
to our eastern borders, the Russians responded by deploying their divisions to their
western border, which was then followed by move and countermove. When the
deployment was finalized and staged on both sides, it was only a small step until the first
shot was fired, as experience shows. Fear of losing the initiative was a strong stimulus.113
While Hitler underestimated the Russians, Stalin overestimated us. But we failed to
capitalize on the incredible respect and the deference that the average Russian had for
Germany.
It would have been ideal if we had managed to maneuver Russia into a conflict with
England, and then slowly disengaged to play the role of the tertius gaudens.114 But this
only could have worked by letting Russia have Romania and Bulgaria and allowing them
access to the Mediterranean. All that, however, was unacceptable to Hitler.
And Stalin was too smart. There was a reason that he halted the Russian campaign in
Finland short of total military and political victory. He did not want a conflict with the
West. He wanted to save the role of tertius gaudens for himself. Hitler was afraid of Stalin
in such a role. Nor did he want a two-front war; therefore, the Soviet Union had to be
destroyed before the Anglo-Americans could again attack on land. But in order to avoid a
two-front war, Hitler ironically rushed into a two-front war, overlooking the possibility of
a triple alliance of Germany-Russia-Japan, which would have been invincible against the
Anglo-Americans. Hitler’s never-ending mistrust thwarted the possibility of any such
plan.
The often repeated argument that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable must be
rejected. Nobody can see the future. Even in 1945 certain circles in the United States were
playing with the idea of a preventive war against Russia. Since the end of World War II
the conflict between Moscow and Peking, which was not foreseeable then, has created a
new situation. In politics one must have staying power. But regardless, the soldier has to
accept the situation that war brings and he has to make the best of it. “Right or wrong, my
country.”115
Hannibal in Russia
Since the end of the Thirty Years’ War Germany stood against a cauchemar des
coalitions:116 France-Sweden; France-Turkey; France-Russia; France-Poland; EnglandRussia; and America-Russia. Militarily this required us to strike before superior forces
could be united and massed against us. The problem on the battlefield became one of
winning against larger forces.
Our military philosophy, formed in practice by Frederick the Great, theoretically
developed by Clausewitz, and advanced to a science by Moltke and Schlieffen, was based
on solving that problem. Schlieffen started with Hannibal’s victory at Cannae, in which
the Carthaginians with a smaller force had been able to destroy the numerically superior
Roman legions, led by consuls and lawyers. We got as far as the doctrine of the double
envelopment battle, but unfortunately we did not develop from there. Why did the most
brilliant military commander, who was at the head of the best army of its time, and who
had prepared for war politically in a first-rate manner, lose the war, even though initially
there was no equally capable “Roman” facing him as an opponent and he was adding one
victorious campaign streamer after another to his battle flag?117
We have, unfortunately, never pursued these problems to the end. After Cannae,
Hannibal did not march on to Rome, which caused his cavalry commander Marhabal to
exclaim, “Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis.”118 Did Hannibal lack military
leadership greatness, or did he correctly know the limits of his power? He probably was
right because he was vulnerable in human resources and space. Both of these factors were
on the side of Rome, as well as decisive maritime dominance.
Germany also achieved legendary victories but in the end succumbed to the human
factor, space, and maritime domination, all of which were clearly on the side of Russia.
Unfortunately, we did not have the sense of proportion and reality, like the great
Carthaginian. Visionary soldiers had recognized the situation. Seeckt once said, “Russia is
invincible.” Soldiers have no say in politics; that is the realm of politicians. But when
things go wrong, naturally the soldier is blamed. That is how it has always been—in 1806,
in 1918, in 1945, and so on.119
One point that was rarely discussed was what we would have done had we achieved
victory? Before the beginning of the war I was called to OKH and asked about one aspect
of this issue. Could we use the potentially large numbers of captured Russian tanks to
equip our units for the conduct of the expected small-scale wars? Could we maintain our
levels of armament production? No one seemed to understand that this was more of a
political question than a technical one. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say
that we would have ended up like Napoleon in Spain. Our significant postwar historical
writings still show significant gaps.120
17
Commander in Chief, Army Group G
Hitler’s Situational Assessment
I had been home just four days when I received a call from the Führer Headquarters,
“Report immediately! Then proceed to the West.” Hitler appointed me as
Oberbefehlshaber1 of Army Group G and explained the following:
“Owing to logistical difficulties the Allies will come to a standstill at about their
current line. This must be exploited for a counterattack. The Americans have nothing
behind them. No reserves. If we break through anywhere they have nothing to throw
against us. On the side of the Allies it is a complete campaign of deception. I hope to be
able to attack in the middle of November with strong forces, which will include ten Panzer
divisions and strong air assets.2 Assumed preconditions would be muddy ground and
foggy weather, so that the enemy air forces and armored forces are either neutralized or at
a minimum held in check. We must do it like the Russians, until we are strong again in the
air. Until the beginning of the offensive the situation in the West will have developed as
follows. On the right wing we will have withdrawn to the Rhine. I hope that we will
succeed in pulling all our forces back there. In the middle we will be able to hold the West
Wall. Your mission is to do so with as small a force as possible. Under no circumstances
can forces that are earmarked for the offensive be drawn off by you. Should you also
succeed in holding in Alsace, I would really appreciate that, so I have a security buffer if I
need it.”
It was a rather sobering and precise situational analysis, which I could endorse
absolutely. My mission statement was significantly better defined and more
“generalstabsmässig”3 than the one for the German Sixth Army, which fought in the same
sector in 1914. Hitler did not know that the Allies could defog their airfields and he
overlooked the reality that the American reserves were not in France but in America, from
which they could be transported rapidly to where they were needed with modern means of
transportation. I, too, did not recognize these two points.
Then Hitler addressed the disciplinary situation in the West that appeared more than
gloomy. Some units had retreated in a single bound from Lyon back to Halle on the Saale
River.
Hitler gave me complete authority to act, free of all legal restrictions. That was a great
deal of power for a single commander, but any western army would have done the same
facing a similar situation.4 Personally, I had the impression that Hitler was completely
normal and in full command of his mental faculties. There was no indication at all that
anything had changed from before. He was as always friendly and personable toward me
and he assured me again and again that I had his full trust.
A glance at the situation map was not discouraging. Three field armies were in position
along the line from Luxembourg to Belfort, with approximately fifteen corps headquarters
and about fifty divisions. Everything depended on what the reality on the ground looked
like.
Probing
I used my stay in Rastenburg to orient myself thoroughly, politically, militarily, and on the
new weapons technologies. Militarily, Hitler’s statements had been correct. Ten fully
equipped Panzer divisions should be able to turn the tide, together with the allocated
infantry divisions. The force ratio compared to the Allies was not unfavorable. In France
in 1940 we had also only committed about ten Panzer divisions.
Politically, there doubtlessly were weak spots on the enemy side. The Canadians were
the best troops the Allies had, but they had exhibited insubordinate conduct during their
transport to Europe and the Canadian Parliament had agreed to the troop commitment with
only a one-vote majority. A few days later I called on Ambassador Franz von Papen,5 who
lived in the Saarland region, to discuss the political situation with him. During our
conversation he said that he did not consider it impossible for us to reach a gentlemen’s
agreement with the western Allies regarding the Soviet Union.
The questions about the new weapons technologies were of the utmost importance. I
had always been of the opinion that superior weapons and equipment were worth more
than good operational leadership. From Miltiades6 to Gaius Duilius7 and his boarding
devices to the Prussian needle gun and the tank, military history teaches this lesson rather
clearly. Any military success we might achieve in the West in 1944 would only have a
significant effect if it bought us the time to regain weapons technology superiority. If we
could do that, then we could at least hope for a draw. From conversations with Armaments
Minister Albert Speer, I learned of several innovations that were technically feasible,
although Speer was quite somber and did not exhibit much hope or optimism. The new
weapons under development included:
Walter’s air-independent submarine propulsion system, and a U-boat with an improved
snorkel, against which the Allies had no countermeasures.
An acoustically guided FLAK projectile that would home in on the aircraft to the point
of impact.
New jet aircraft in sufficiently large numbers.
Tanks with infrared target acquisition systems that would turn night fighting into
daytime, leaving the opponent blind. Later in Hungary I commanded the first units so
equipped.
Thus, the picture of our situation that emerged was one where these new technologies
were our last chance to thwart our enemies’ inflexible intent to destroy us. What would
come after the called-for unconditional surrender seemed so horrible that it justified any
course of action.8 We had to fight like a cornered rat.9
First Impressions
While at the Führer Headquarters I requested that Mellenthin, my highly proven chief of
staff, be reassigned to me. Hitler agreed. Two men who work well together for so long
should not be split up. During World War I in France we had not followed that principle.
I met Mellenthin in Łódź and from Darmstadt on we drove by car to Molsheim, where
the Army Group G command post was located. While crossing the Rhine we encountered
combat-ready elements of a Panzer division that was moving back toward Baden-Baden,
supposedly for reconstitution. In Molsheim the traffic was so bad that I ordered the area
commander to report to me immediately. A distinguished older gentleman appeared and
reported that he was the personal friend of the previous army group commander in chief,
and he could not be held responsible for anything since there was no funding for his
activities. Coming from the East, I realized I had entered an alien world.
The overall situation was not unfavorable. Instead of rushing forward toward the Rhine
between Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains, the Americans let themselves be drawn
toward Metz, where they were fighting stubbornly but without success for the Metz
fortresses. That ring of fortresses around the city was courageously and effectively
defended by the soldiers of an officer candidate school class. That provided us some time
to reconstitute slowly the First Army, which was commanded by my old commanding
general and predecessor at the XLVIII Panzer Corps, General von Knobelsdorf. On his left
the brilliant Manteuffel commanded the Fifth Panzer Army, which extended as far south as
the edge of the Vosges Mountains. Originally, the Fifth Panzer Army was supposed to
thrust from the plateau at Langres into the American right flank, but the attack never came
off. Fantasies that are not based on reality are seldom achievable.10 Now the Americans
were pushing forward toward the Saar region, along the boundary between the First Army
and the Fifth Panzer Army. There is where I assessed the greatest danger. In preparation
for a counterattack I moved everything available there, including my old reliable 11th
Panzer Division. The reality we constantly faced was that whenever the flying weather
was bad our attacks moved along quickly. As soon as the enemy’s air forces were able to
bear down on us with little or no opposition, all progress stopped. After consulting with
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the OB-West,11 we halted the attacks.
Map 15. Army Group G Situation, 15 September 1944. (Map by Donald S. Frazier)
Having established a straight defensive front line, we considered at the time that we
had achieved complete success. In reality, however, the situation on the Allied side had
been such that Eisenhower stopped Generals Omar Bradley12 and George Patton13
because all supplies had been diverted north to capture the Ruhr region before the onset of
winter. Nonetheless, it gave us a bitterly needed break.
On the left flank of Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army, the Nineteenth Army under
General of the Infantry Friedrich Wiese held the line of the Vosges Mountains forward of
Belfort all the way to the Swiss border. At the Zhizdra River Wiese had commanded an
infantry division adjacent to my division. His army consisted only of a few combat-ready
units very thinly deployed. It had conducted a difficult but well-commanded withdrawal
from the French Riviera to Belfort, but it was now looking toward future developments
with apprehension.14
The American spearheads were closing in on the Nineteenth Army’s line. I ordered it to
attack the points of the American force. Wiese and his chief of staff, General Walter
Botsch, looked at me uncomprehendingly and asked, “With what?” Then we pored over
the map together and scraped up anything that could be assembled. Only patrols or flimsy
screens remained in large sectors of the front line. But the energetic Wiese was finally able
to attack the American advance guards and bring them to a halt. The Americans were not
good at fighting in wooded terrain, and being on the attack undeniably generates its own
magical power. “Attaquez donc toujours”15 the great field commanders always preached.
The Americans thought we were stronger than we actually were.
The condition of the Nineteenth Army was pitiful. One division had no artillery at all.
Somebody had surrendered the division’s artillery and other combat-capable units to an
American lieutenant and his twelve men. Now the division’s infantry was paying for that
with their blood. The Nineteenth Army had been held up for too long on the Langres
Plateau to be able to incorporate that withdrawing division and at the same time cover a
planned Panzer thrust into the American right flank. That Panzer thrust had to be
scrubbed. The Nineteenth Army reached the Vosges Mountains too late and too hastily.
What would happen if the Nineteenth Army were thrown back against the bridgeless
upper Rhine did not bear contemplating. Wiese tried to reassure me. One of his staff
sections was planning everything for a crossing, with twelve crossing sites being prepared
and manned. But when I heard the names of the people in charge of the crossing, I decided
to drive there immediately. I expected the worst, and even those expectations were
surpassed. Twelve individual pontoons had been distributed along the entire Upper Rhine,
without the possibility of actually building a single crossing. The approach routes had not
been marked, and some of those responsible were lounging in the warm autumn sun. A
crossing of that size required approximately sixteen bridges of two to four pontoons each.
There is no telling what these people thought they could do with twelve individual
pontoons. If it had come to a rearward surge of the two hundred thousand to three hundred
thousand Nineteenth Army troops in Alsace, the result would have been a catastrophe, for
which Hitler naturally would have been blamed.
The following day I gave those responsible for the crossing a piece of my mind.
Looking into their blank faces, I heard the standard line in such situations: “We have
nothing left.” But within three to four days everything had been staged. All of a sudden
personnel and equipment had become available.
Alsace was full of non-combat-effective units, including the Indian Legion, a Russian
SS division that had already mutinied once, Cossack brigades, and the supply trains of
several destroyed divisions. Hitler had prohibited the withdrawal across the Rhine of all
these elements without his explicit order. If I wanted to avoid a catastrophe, all these
people that could not or did not want to fight had to be brought back across the Rhine.
After a very difficult, day-long series of arguments, Hitler finally agreed to move these
people across the river and into Baden.16 At that point, we seized the opportunity to bring
back across the Rhine anything that had no combat value. That was Mellenthin’s work.
What made things even more complicated was that Himmler was now the commander
in chief of the Ersatzheer.17 He immediately started to collect up officers who had
completely failed with us and reinstate them in positions of responsibility in the Ersatzheer
and the new Volkseinheiten.18 He was assured of their complete loyalty to him, but they
did not become any more competent. They only created more problems.
Himmler had a penchant for recruiting the delinquents, putting them into good
positions, but letting the still-open legal cases dangle in front of them. He also set them up
well financially. Not everyone could resist such an opportunity. I knew of one case in
which Ernst Schlange19 had called Reichsminister of Labor Robert Ley a drunkard, and
was sentenced to a concentration camp for it. If he agreed to throw in with Himmler, he
would be set up as an SS-Brigadeführer.20 Schlange chose to stay in the concentration
camp. My hat is off to such strength of character. Schlange was the younger brother of
Hans Schlange-Schoeningen, one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union.21
During these days it became clear to me what Himmler was up to. He was creating SS
organizations everywhere to take over the Reich, should the opportunity arise. He already
controlled all the police, and he was reaching into the Wehrmacht. The Volksgrenadier
units were only staffed with officers of his choosing, many of whom had criminal pasts.
There was no concern for capability. How he imagined he could accomplish his goal
remains unclear—possibly an alliance with Russia and a form of “Brown Bolshevism.”22
The condition of the troops was abominable for the most part. The newly formed and
now ubiquitous Volksgrenadier divisions23 were not fully trained. Even worse, they were
under Himmler’s jurisdiction for military justice matters, which created additional
unfathomable difficulties. In order to slow down the withdrawal from the West, OKW had
instituted a number of special courts-martial with increased summary powers. These
courts came directly under Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.24 Order had to be established
out of all this chaos. I immediately suspended the special courts-martial and sent them
home. That at least reduced the number of court organizations. A number of units,
including several Panzer brigades, were not self-supporting. They had insufficient
maintenance assets and they were quickly disintegrating, even without enemy action. I
disbanded those units and integrated their assets into the Panzer divisions.
The Panzer division that I had run into at the Rhine crossing on its way to
reconstitution in Baden-Baden came under especially thorough scrutiny. It had three
hundred men on the front line and approximately nine thousand combatants back in
Baden-Baden. It was holding a frontline sector of approximately two kilometers. After
three days, six thousand men with their weapons were forward again and the division held
a sector of twenty-five kilometers.
Almost all the Panzer divisions had repositioned their maintenance assets across the
Rhine, mostly to Baden-Baden. The refurbished tanks that were damaged again at the
Saverne Gap during the march movement toward the front had to return back to BadenBaden for repair. That crazy game stopped when I ordered the maintenance units to
displace closer to the front, where they were supposed to be.
Every soldier needs rations, uniforms, mail, and rest in order to perform his duty. These
were issues that I immediately got involved in. The food supplies were taken from the
surrounding country, and that process was under control. Uniform supplies were miserable
for the most part. Troops were wearing tropical uniforms in the wet, melting, pre-winter
snow of the Vosges Mountains. Change was needed. My hat is off to those troops who
staunchly lived through that and still fought well.
Sadly, I could not offer them any rest, but mail I could. The responsible senior postal
official gave me an excellent rundown on how everything worked. All units were
designated by their field post numbers, he told me, and everything worked with lightning
speed. Unfortunately for him, he did not know me. I had the disconcerting habit of going
into the forwardmost positions and asking the last man there when he had received
comfort items last and how much he had received. What did he get for rations that day?
When was the last time he received mail and how did he send it off? After three days I
found out that many units did not have assigned field post numbers and the troops were
not getting mail from home.
I had the responsible gentleman report to me. He had to admit everything. The mail
from home was routed to a specific location in Baden and it was then regularly destroyed
in Allied bombing attacks.
“What have you done to stop this?”
“I am not authorized to interfere there, that is outside of my jurisdiction.”
“So, you did nothing.”
“I am not authorized to interfere.”
What I did find out is that his own office had succeeded in receiving the highest ration
priority for itself. When I downgraded the postal activities to the lowest ration priority,
order returned to the field postal operation and mail was no longer destroyed by fire. Of
course, the said gentleman objected to what he considered an affront to his bruised honor.
I countered by saying that I thought his honor was to supply the troops with mail from
home, and not to supply his own stomach.
Conclusions
Once I had an understanding of everything, it was time to act. On 10 October I wrote
Colonel General Alfred Jodl at OKW a personal letter that I knew he would share with
General Buhle, who in turn would show it to Hitler. According to historian Percy
Schramm, Hitler concluded from the letter that the conditions of the First Army and the
Fifth Panzer Army were passable, and that of the Nineteenth Army was abominable.25 I
wrote: “I have never before commanded such a hodgepodge and poorly equipped bunch of
troops. The fact that we were able to correct the situation and finally hand off the 3rd
Panzergrenadier Division to the north was only made possible by the